Eating out is one of my favourite things. It can be sociable or not, a treat in itself or a quick bite before the cinema, something to round off a day on holiday or a step off the interminable wheel of everyday cooking. Whatever the occasion, there’s always a feeling of pleasurable anticipation which is why Christoph Ribbat’s whirlwind tour of the history of the restaurant instantly appealed.
In the Restaurant begins novelistically with a woman rushing through the Chicago crowds hoping to find herself a job as a waitress. It’s 1917 and the woman is Frances Donovan who is embarking on a research project which will culminate in The Woman Who Waits, published in 1920, but we won’t know that for several more pages. Next we leap backwards to a restaurant in China serving all manner of sophisticated exotica in 1275. Then we’re in Paris in 1760 at the birth of the European restaurant, a term derived from its ‘restorative bouillons’. The etiquette, cuisine and conventions of the restaurant will remain firmly in French hands for quite some time. Organised into four sections, Ribbat’s book takes us from the origins and development of these Parisian palaces of restaurant luxury to the popularisation of eating out in the post-war period with the rise of the fast food chain then to the foodie fetishes of the present, mining a wide range of kitchen memoirs, biographies, sociological investigations, fiction and reviews as he does so. Heston Blumentahl, Nigel Slater, Bill Buford and Barbara Ehrenreich all make an appearance
If it’s not too early to mention Christmas shopping, you could do worse than think about this book for the keen diners among your friends and family. It’s wonderfully entertaining, stuffed full of anecdote and juicy bits of trivia, one of the most striking of which for me was American restaurant critic Gael Greene’s memory of the fried egg sandwich Elvis Presley ordered after they’d been to bed but not the sex. Written in short fragments, Ribbat’s narrative jumps around episodically, often doubling back to pick up a story or a point, which takes a little getting used to but eventually becomes quite addictive. He has his tongue firmly in his cheek for the more extravagant exploits – eight (unpaid) cooks at the much revered El Bulli popping out 250 ‘lentils which aren’t lentils’ made from dough to be floated in a soup referencing lentils springs to mind – but it’s not just about luxury and obsession. Ribbat throws open the kitchen doors via Anthony Bourdain and George Orwell’s memoirs, shining a light on the inequality, exploitation and dubious hygiene of which we diners may be blissfully unaware out in the beautifully decorated front of house. Given that Ribbat is a professor the final brief but rather more serious section read to me a bit like an apology for a lack of academic rigour but who cares. It’s hugely enjoyable, and it has a meticulous bibliography which may well have you making your own foodie reading list.