PART lI: PUBLIC DEBUT
Updated: Sep 5, 2021
THE SINGING WAITER: WORLD’S 1ST RESTAURANT
Up until the beginning of the 12th century, formal dining was an internal affair. A dining table was considered an element within a domestic domain, privately shared among household members and their guests. To dine in one’s private space, however, was a rare luxury.
It was uncommon for the middle and the lower classes to possess private cooking facilities. Self-catering was a challenge. A thermopolium, a cookshop, was among the first forms of commercial establishment to provide ready-made food. Dating back to Ancient Greece, it was the key venue among commoners ‘to acquire the equivalent of modern takeaway meals’. Historical records imply that these meals served in simple earthenware were sometimes consumed immediately in public.
Despite the thermopolium being the forerunner of a public eatery, it took more than a millennium for a restaurant to emerge as an institution known today. The first establishment began in 1100 Medieval China as ‘a cultural institution aimed at feeding appetites away from home’. The combined urban populations of over two million inhabitants and the bustling trade between these northern and southern metropolises, Kaifeng and Hangzhou, had fuelled the demand for an establishment to cater for merchants and travellers. Restaurants in Kaifeng, for example, would cater Southern food for Hangzhou’s merchants who were not yet accustomed to the Northern cuisine.
Each of the restaurants had a courtyard with eastern and western corridors designated as seating compartments. People of the capital were extravagant, unrestrained, and they would order a hundred different things... Each person demanded something different. The waiter took their orders [and] sang out to those in the kitchen.
Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (The Eastern Capital: A Dream of Splendor) A translation of a memoir written by Meng Yuan Lao, 1187