The Restaurateur: Dining in Paris in the Early 19th Century

When Napoleon was in exile on St. Helena, he told one of his companions that the happiest days of his life were when he was between the ages of 16 and 20 and “used to go about from one restaurateur to another, living moderately and having a lodging for which I paid three louis a month.” (1) A restaurateur is a person who owns or runs a restaurant. In Napoleon’s time, the word was synonymous with restaurant.

Restaurant du Boeuf à la Mode, Le Goût du jour, 1825. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Restaurant du Boeuf à la Mode, 1825. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Although public eateries have been around for over two thousand years, the modern restaurant – in which patrons are seated at their own tables, can dine whenever the establishment is open, and select their food from a menu that offers a choice of dishes – originated in Paris in the mid-1700s. Prior to this, travellers were dependent on taverns and inns, which tended to offer communal meals at a fixed time. Patrons ate whatever the cook served up, usually something simple. Cooked meals could also be bought at food shops or ordered from caterers (traiteurs). Cafés, which date from the 1600s, served beverages and light fare, typically desserts.

Dining options in France increased dramatically after the French Revolution. Unemployed cooks from aristocratic and royal households became restaurateurs. They introduced elements of fine dining, including ornate rooms, beautifully-set tables, smartly-dressed wait staff, and gourmet dishes. Food was available either as a set meal (prix fixe) or could be ordered from a menu (à la carte). Simpler and cheaper establishments offering a set meal were known as a table d’hôte, like the one operated by Jacques Saint-Victor in Napoleon in America.

An Englishman visiting Paris in 1801 observed:

The usual mode of living at Paris is at the Restaurateur’s: a name which has not been known (I believe) above thirty or forty years. Beauvillier’s, in the Palais Royal, is the most elegant and complete place of the kind I ever saw. The bill of fare usually contains at least 250 different articles, with the prices annexed to each of them. The same may be said of the different kinds of wines. (2)

Dining at Beauvilliers’ in 1802

The kitchen of a restaurateur, as depicted on the title page of the L’Art du Cuisinier by Antoine Beauvilliers, 1814

A restaurateur’s kitchen, as depicted on the title page of the L’Art du Cuisinier by Antoine Beauvilliers, 1814

Antoine Beauvilliers had worked his way up from humble origins to become a chef to the Count of Provence, the future King Louis XVIII. Beauvilliers’ restaurant was considered one of the best in Paris. An Englishman provided a detailed description of a meal there around 1802, when Napoleon was First Consul.

On the first floor of a large hotel, formerly occupied, perhaps, by a farmer-general, you enter a suite of apartments, decorated with arabesques, and mirrors of large dimensions, in a style no less elegant than splendid, where tables are completely arranged for large or small parties. In winter, these rooms are warmed by ornamental stoves, and lighted by quinquets, a species of Argand’s lamps. They are capable of accommodating from two hundred and fifty to three hundred persons, and, at this time of the year, the average number that dine here daily is about two hundred; in summer, it is considerably decreased by the attractions of the country, and the parties of pleasure made, in consequence, to the environs of the capital.

On the left hand, as you pass into the first room, rises a sort of throne, not unlike the estrade in the grand audience-chamber of a Spanish viceroy. This throne is encircled by a barrier to keep intruders at a respectful distance. Here sits a lady, who, from her majestic gravity and dignified bulk, you might very naturally suppose to be an empress, revolving in her comprehensive mind the affairs of her vast dominions. This respectable personage is Madame Beauvilliers, whose most interesting concern is to collect from the gentlemen in waiting the cash which they receive at the different tables. In this important branch, she has the assistance of a lady, somewhat younger than herself, who, seated by her side, in stately silence, has every appearance of a maid of honour. A person in waiting near the throne, from his vacant look and obsequious carriage, might, at first sight, be taken for a chamberlain; whereas his real office, by no means an unimportant one, is to distribute into deserts the fruit and other et ceteras, piled up within his reach in tempting profusion.

We will take our seats in this corner, whence, without laying down our knife and fork, we can enjoy a full view of the company as they enter. We are rather early: by the clock, I perceive that it is no more than five: at six, however, there will scarcely be a vacant seat at any of the tables. …

Good heaven! The bill of fare is a printed sheet of double folio, of the size of an English newspaper. It will require half an hour at least to con over this important catalogue. Let us see; Soups, thirteen sorts. — Hors-d’oeuvres, twenty-two species. — Beef, dressed in eleven different ways. — Pastry, containing fish, flesh and fowl, in eleven shapes. Poultry and game, under thirty-two various forms. — Veal, amplified into twenty-two distinct articles. — Mutton, confined to seventeen only. — Fish, twenty-three varieties. — Roast meat, game, and poultry, of fifteen kinds. — Entremets, or side-dishes, to the number of forty-one articles. — Desert, thirty-nine. — Wines, including those of the liqueur kind, of fifty-two denominations, besides ale and porter. — Liqueurs, twelve species, together with coffee and ices. …

Some of the items on Beauvilliers' menu, circa 1802

Some of the items on Beauvilliers’ menu, circa 1802

One advantage well deserving of notice, of this bill of fare with the price annexed to each article, is that, when you have made up your mind as to what you wish to have for dinner, you have it in your power, before you give the order, to ascertain the expense. But, though you see the price of each dish, you see not the dish itself; and when it comes on the table, you may, perhaps, be astonished to find that a pompous, big-sounding name sometimes produces only a scrap of scarcely three mouthfuls. It is the mountain in labour delivered of a mouse.

However, if you are not a man of extraordinary appetite, you may, for the sum of nine or ten francs, appease your hunger, drink your bottle of Champagne or Burgundy, and, besides, assist digestion by a dish of coffee and a glass of liqueur. Should you like to partake of two different sorts of wine, you may order them, and drink at pleasure of both; if you do not reduce the contents below the moiety, you pay only for the half bottle. A necessary piece of advice to you as a stranger, is, that, while you are dispatching your first dish, you should take care to order your second, and so on in progression to the end of the chapter: otherwise, for want of this precaution, when the company is very numerous, you may, probably, have to wait some little time between the acts, before you are served.

This is no trifling consideration, if you purpose, after dinner, to visit one of the principal theatres: for, if a new or favourite piece be announced, the house is full, long before the raising of the curtain; and you not only find no room at the theatre to which you first repair; but, in all probability, this disappointment will follow you to every other for that evening.

Nevertheless, ten or fifteen minutes are sufficient for the most dainty or troublesome dish to undergo its final preparation, and in that time you will have it smoking on the table. Those which admit of being completely prepared beforehand, are in a constant state of readiness, and require only to be set over the fire to be warmed. Each cook has a distinct branch to attend to in the kitchen, and the call of a particular waiter to answer, as each waiter has a distinct number of tables, and the orders of particular guests to obey in the dining-rooms. In spite of the confused noise arising from the gabble of so many tongues, there being probably eighty or a hundred persons calling for different articles, many of whom are hasty and impatient, such is the habitual good order observed, that seldom does any mistake occur; the louder the vociferations of the hungry guests, the greater the diligence of the alert waiters. Should any article, when served, happen not to suit your taste, it is taken back and changed without the slightest murmur.

The difference between the establishments of the fashionable restaurateurs before the revolution, and those in vogue at the present day, is that their profession presenting many candidates for public favour, they are under the continual necessity of employing every resource of art to attract customers, and secure a continuance of them. The commodiousness and elegance of their rooms, the savouriness of their cooking, the quality of their wines, the promptitude of their attendants, all are minutely criticized; and, if they study their own interest, they must neglect nothing to flatter the eyes and palate. In fact, how do they know that some of their epicurean guests may not have been of their own fraternity, and once figured in a great French family as chef de cuisine?

Of course, with all this increase of luxury, you must expect an increase of expense: but if you do not now dine here at so reasonable a rate as formerly, at least you are sumptuously served for your money. If you wish to dine frugally, there are numbers of restaurateurs, where you may be decently served with potage, bouilli, an entrée, an entremet, bread and desert, for the moderate sum of from twenty-six to thirty sous. The addresses of these cheap eating-houses, if they are not put into your hand in the street, will present themselves to your eye, at the corner of almost every wall in Paris. Indeed, all things considered, I am of opinion that the difference in the expense of a dinner at a restaurateur’s at present, and what it was ten or eleven years ago, is not more than in the due proportion of the increased price of provisions, house-rent, and taxes.

The difference the most worthy of remark in these rendezvous of good cheer, unquestionably consists in the company who frequent them. In former times, the dining-rooms of the fashionable restaurateurs were chiefly resorted to by young men of good character and connexions, just entering into life, superannuated officers and bachelors in easy circumstances, foreigners on their travels, &c. At this day, these are, in a great measure, succeeded by stock-jobbers, contractors, fortunate speculators, and professed gamblers. In defiance of the old proverb, ‘le ventre est le plus grand de tons nos ennemis,’ guttling and guzzling is the rage of these upstarts. It is by no means uncommon to see many of them begin their dinner by swallowing six or seven dozen of oysters and a bottle of white wine, by way of laying a foundation for a potage en tortue and eight or ten other rich dishes. Such are the modern parvenus, whose craving appetites, in eating and drinking, as in every thing else, are not easily satiated.

It would be almost superfluous to mention, that where rich rogues abound, luxurious courtesans are at no great distance, were it not for the sake of remarking that the former often regale the latter at the restaurateurs , especially at these houses which afford the convenience of snug, little rooms, called cabinets particuliers. Here, two persons, who have any secret affairs to settle, enjoy all possible privacy; for even the waiter never has the imprudence to enter without being called. In these asylums, Love arranges under his laws many individuals not suspected of sacrificing at the shrine of that wonder-working deity. Prudes, whose virtue is the universal boast, and whose austerity drives thousands of beaux to despair, sometimes make themselves amends for the reserve which they are obliged to affect in public, by indulging in a private tête-à-tête in these mysterious recesses. In them too, young lovers frequently interchange the first declarations of eternal affection; to them many a husband owes the happiness of paternity; and without them the gay wife might, perhaps, be at a loss to deceive her jealous Argus, and find an opportunity of lending an attentive ear to the rapturous addresses of her aspiring gallant.

What establishment then can be more convenient than that of a restaurateur? But you would be mistaken, were you to look for cabinets particuliers at every house of this denomination. Here, at Beauvilliers’, for instance, you will find no such accommodation, though if you dislike dining in public, you may have a private room proportioned to the number of a respectable party: or, should you be sitting at home, and just before the hour of dinner, two or three friends call in unexpectedly, if you wish to enjoy their company in a quiet, sociable manner, you have only to dispatch your valet de place to Beauvilliers’ or to the nearest restaurateur of repute, for the bill of fare, and at the same time desire him to bring table-linen, knives, silver forks, spoons, and all other necessary appurtenances. While he is laying the cloth, you fix on your dinner, and, in little more than a quarter of an hour, you have one or two elegant courses, dressed in a capital style, set out on the table. As for wine, if you find it cheaper, you can procure that article from some respectable wine-merchant in the neighbourhood. In order to save trouble, many single persons, and even small families now scarcely ever cook at home; but either dine at a restaurateur’s, or have their dinners constantly furnished from one of these sources of culinary perfection. …

When you want to pay, you say: ‘Garçon, la carte payante!’ The waiter instantly flies to a person, appointed for that purpose, to whom he dictates your reckoning. On consulting your stomach, should you doubt what you have consumed, you have only to call in the aid of your memory, and you will be perfectly satisfied that you have not been charged with a single article too much or too little.

Remark that portly man, so respectful in his demeanour. It is Beauvilliers, the master of the house: this is his most busy hour, and he will now make a tour to inquire at the different tables, if his guests are all served according to their wishes. He will then, like an able general, take a central station, whence he can command a view of all his dispositions. The person, apparently next in consequence to himself, and who seems to have his mind absorbed in other objects, is the butler: his thoughts are, with the wine under his care, in the cellar.

Observe the cleanly attention of the waiters, neatly habited in close-bodied vests, with white aprons before them: watch the quickness of their motions, and you will be convinced that no scouts of a camp could be more on the alert. An establishment, so extremely well conducted, excites admiration, Every spring of the machine duly performs its office; and the regularity of the whole might serve as a model for the administration of an extensive State. Repair then, ye modern Machiavels, to No. 1243, Rue de la Loi; and, while you are gratifying your palate, imbibe instruction from Beauvilliers. (3)

Dining in Paris in 1815

The English at a restaurateur in Paris. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

The English at a restaurateur in Paris. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France

Another English visitor described the dining scene in Paris in the summer of 1815, just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

The coffee houses and public dining rooms at the restaurateurs are decorated with a splendour of which the dark and neglected inside of a Parisian’s home may be either cause or effect. One would imagine that all Paris dined every day from home, so much are these innumerable public victualling places resorted to throughout the whole day. Certainly at the present time the host of foreign troops adds to the population much of that particular class of people who dine from home. The profusion of large looking-glasses, of gilt clocks, and gold introduced into the painting of the rooms may well surprise a traveller coming from wealthy Britain, where heavy taxation checks all profusion in these expensive articles in similar public places.

In the Café du Regent the whole length of the wall facing the street appears like one looking-glass from top to bottom. The Café militaire, though not large, is most elegantly fitted up with alternate pier glasses and fasces of spears, painted and gilt, surmounted by gilt helmets with plumes.  HIC GAUDET BELLICOSA VIRTUS is written on the fan light over the door.  The tables in these houses are generally of an inferior red French marble, easily cleaned and comfortable enough in this warm season.  The practice of waiters being paid by the customers, as well as that of the masters charging exorbitantly, has been introduced here by such of the English as have more money than wit, and who used to exclaim: ‘How monstrously cheap it is!’ a hint that was not lost upon Monsieur le restaurateur, nor upon the boutiquiers male and female.  These no sooner observe by the cut of your clothes that you come from England, than their only apprehension in dealing with you appears to be that they may not ask or charge enough. (4)

Dining at a restaurateur in 1829

A Parisian restaurant in the 1840s

A Parisian restaurant in the 1840s

By the 1820s, there were over 3,000 restaurateurs in Paris. An American visiting the city in 1829 frequented several of them.

You enter into a large hall, with sometimes a suite of rooms in addition. The hall is often very splendidly furnished, and is filled with tables, separately spread, for any number of persons, from two to seven or eight, as may be desired. At the head of it is a raised seat, with a railing around it, where a female is placed, who presides over the whole, and receives the money after you have dined; and also serves out the fruit, which makes a fine show upon a large table near her. She is generally selected for her beauty, in order to attract persons, as one of the ornaments of the saloon. When you have seated yourself at either of the tables you choose, a waiter hands you a carte, from which you select your dinner. At some of the restaurants you pay more or less, according to what dishes you call for; but at others they agree, for a certain sum, to give you a dinner, which shall consist of potage, or soup, the indispensable commencement of a dinner in France, and three different dishes, besides wine, fruit, bread, and a small cup of coffee, without milk, but with a plentiful allowance of sugar, with which your repast finishes. The houses of this description are not among the most genteel or agreeable; and in other respects they are not in the highest esteem, because it is so much the object of the proprietors to economize in the cost of what they set before you, that you are not sure of having food of the best quality.

The most celebrated cafes and restaurants are in the Palais Royal, and along the Boulevards, some of which are fitted up, in all their parts, with real magnificence, and give you the luxuries of the country, prepared in the highest perfection of the gastronomic art. There were great numbers of persons at these places, when I visited them, the rooms being generally quite full. Sometimes, though rarely, there were parties of ladies without any gentlemen; but more frequently of gentlemen alone, or gentlemen and ladies together. I was at first much surprised at meeting so many people; but afterwards came to realize the convenience of being able to obtain a good dinner at a moment’s warning, whenever you choose to call; particularly if you chance to be far from your lodgings. And there are, besides, many gentlemen, whose place of business is at a distance from their houses, and other persons who live in hired apartments, and always dine at a restaurant. But the more fashionable and expensive of these establishments are supported in a great measure by the multitude of foreigners, who resort to Paris, and fill its walks, galleries, and places of recreation and refreshment. These considerations will account for the confluence of persons who are usually to be seen at the restaurateurs. (5)

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  1. Barry E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile; or, A Voice from St. Helena, Vol. II (London, 1822), p. 155.
  2. “An Accurate Account of the Present State of the French Republic,” The Monthly Magazine, Vol. 11, No. 2 (London, 1801), p. 105.
  3. Francis William Blagdon, Paris As It Was and As It Is: A Sketch of the French Capital, Vol. I (London, 1803), pp. 442-460.
  4. “A Trip to Paris in August and September, 1815,” The New Monthly Magazine, Vol. V, No. 29 (London, 1816), p. 387.
  5. Caroline Elizabeth Wilde Cushing, Letters, Descriptive of Public Monuments, Scenery, and Manners in France and Spain, Vol. I (Newburyport, 1832), pp. 8-10.

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Though you see the price of each dish, you see not the dish itself; and when it comes on the table, you may, perhaps, be astonished to find that a pompous, big-sounding name sometimes produces only a scrap of scarcely three mouthfuls.

Francis William Blagdon