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7. December 2022, 6 min read

When restaurants were soup: a journey through restaurant facts

Author: Birgitte Brøndum
A restaurant patio with many tables, and lamps hanging from the patio cover.
A restaurant patio with many tables, and lamps hanging from the patio cover.
Photo: Syed Ahmad

We don’t even want to imagine a world without restaurants. Not only because it’s our industry and passion, but also because restaurants breathe life into cities with alluring scents, cosy facades and a myriad of flavours waiting to be discovered. Let’s explore some restaurant facts to find out how we got here and where we’re headed.

Historical restaurant facts

These days, most city streets have at least one restaurant or fast food place. Nevertheless, restaurants, as we think of them, haven’t always been around, but people have still been dining out for thousands of years.

The oldest inn in England

The world’s earliest restaurants

The concept of eating meals prepared and served outside one’s own home is likely to have existed since 500-600 BCE. We know this because archaeological excavations of Pompeii have turned up dining spots for people in all societal classes. These places have been named ‘thermopolium’, Greek for a place where something hot is sold.

The early versions of the restaurant ranged from simple places where food was served outdoors to more luxurious indoor establishments.

In China restaurant-like eating places started to appear around 1100 CE. Written sources from 1126 mention a popular restaurant where guests could choose between a very wide selection of small dishes.

The servers would take orders from the guests and then shout them to the chefs. Within just a few moments the waiters would reappear at the tables carrying a stack of plates with the ordered dishes.

Source: snl.no

In Europe, it all began with taverns and roadside inns

Before European restaurants became restaurants there were taverns and roadside inns. These were common in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Greece.

The nature of these inns and taverns varied from country to country, but common for all was that they were places where people could gather to drink alcoholic beverages and eat a meal. Sometimes it was also possible for travellers to rent a room for a few nights.

On the menu in a typical 14th to 17th-century tavern were heavier and simpler meals with roast meats, cheese, fish, bacon and herring.

At later versions of the French taverns, known as cabarets, finer and more restaurant-like meals were served. But even here, alcohol played centre stage. Cabarets were the places to go for a glass or bottle of wine, but beer and cider were severed in other, often shadier places.

Where did the word restaurant originate?

The word ‘restaurant’ was coined in France in the 16th century. To begin with, the word meant food that restores and nourishes and was mainly used when referring to soup made from meat and vegetable broth. It wasn’t until the 18th century the word that got the meaning it has today i.e. a place where food is served.

But how did the word move into the meaning we know today? One common theory is that a man named Boulanger or Jacque Minet opened a restaurant (soup) establishment in Paris in 1706.

A dispute arose between Boulanger and the butcher’s guild (an early kind of union for butchers), and this culminated with a trial, which, according to some, was the main source of the word’s new meaning. The dispute allegedly arose because Boulanger’s establishment didn’t stick to serving soup, but branched into other dishes containing meat.

Nevertheless, the American historian Rebecca Spang hasn’t been able to find traces of either Boulanger or the trial. According to her, the word is more likely to have its roots in a Parisian soup place opened by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau in 1767.

This place was referred to as a restaurant and served many different kinds of soups and broths around the clock.

Soup in a stoneware bowl
Photo: Steve Tsang

Unemployed nobility chefs opened more restaurants

After the French Revolution (1789-1799), many of the chefs that had worked in nobility households became unemployed. These chefs opened their own dining places or got hired by restaurants. During this time French wealth became more evenly distributed. This meant the demand for restaurants started growing.

The advanced cooking methods and luxurious table decor that had previously been reserved for the nobility now found a home in public restaurants.

Source: The Invention of The Restaurant, Rebecca L. Spang.

Outdoor restaurant patio in European street
Photo: Meizhi Lang

European restaurant facts in numbers

Now that we’ve munched on some historical restaurant facts, let’s take a fast glance at how much has happened in the European restaurant industry since the time when restaurants were soup.

How many restaurants are there in the EU?

It’s hard to walk down any street in a European city or town without encountering at least one restaurant. Most of you who are reading this now are most likely working in one of them. But how many restaurants are there?

5% of the EU GDP comes from restaurants and hotels. The hospitality industry is one of the biggest socio-economic sectors in Europe.

There are 1 million restaurants and 200.000 hotels in Europe. Some of these are so-called micro-enterprises with 10 or fewer employees.

How many people in Europe work in a restaurant or hotel?

As of 2019 11,9 million Europeans were working in a restaurant or hotel.

More women than men are working in the European hospitality industry

 In Europe, 53,7% of the people working in restaurants and hotels are women

Sources: Eurostat and Hotrec

These numbers are always approximate. It’s a fast-moving industry where new places open almost every day while others, sadly, have to close their doors. Nevertheless, they’re a good indicator of how big our industry is. They also show how important restaurants are for the economy and for people living in Europe.

Restaurant facts (well almost) from the future

In the last couple of years, we have seen many changes happening in the industry. Some were brought on by a need to adapt to pandemic restrictions. Some to improve workflow efficiency in times of understaffing. And others to meet new demands from guests.

While presenting restaurant facts from the future isn’t possible, looking at scientific studies and current restaurant trends can give us some good hints about where we’re headed.

Restaurant technology

Restaurants have been quite slow when it comes to adapting technology. But now things are starting to speed up and a lot of things are happening all at once.

Here are some of the tech solutions many restaurants have started using:

Source: EHL insights

More vegetable-focused menus

Many guests are looking for restaurants with more plant-based menu options. The reasons for adopting a diet with less meat are many, but health and climate play a big role in this. Food science researchers are also fully occupied with figuring out how we can use plants to create food products that satisfy meat cravings.

Charlotte Vinther Schmidt is a food entrepreneur and researcher at The University of Copenhagen. According to her, we’re not craving meat. What our tastebuds really want is umami flavour.

We can use science-based knowledge about umami to boost the taste of the plant-based food, so that we want to eat it — Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, Postdoc at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen

Restaurants will get better at avoiding food waste

There is a never-ending list of good reasons to avoid food waste. We need to protect natural resources, reduce carbon emissions and make sure restaurant budgets are in balance. A lot of restaurants are already implementing changes that help them avoid food waste. One of them is Restaurant Moment in Rønde. Earlier this year we interviewed them about their zero-food waste philosophy. You can read the interview here.

Despite a growing effort from both restaurants and private households, there’s still a long way to go. In Denmark alone, approximately 716,000 tonnes of food are tossed out every year.

Our hopeful prediction is that we’ll get a lot better at reducing food waste in the future. At DinnerBooking, we’ll do our part to help restaurants with solutions that can help minimise the amount of wasted food and resources.

Source: ECPH Food

If you want to dive into more restaurant facts there are enough books, scholarly articles and essays out there to last you a lifetime. Throughout history, restaurants have played important roles in the lives of people all over the world. This is still as true today as when restaurants meant soup, and we’re proud to be part of this fascinating and tasty journey!