- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Tales of Two Cities examines and compares six urban spaces—the street, the cemetery, the apartment, the restaurant, the underworld and the music hall—that defined urban modernity in the nineteenth century. The citizens of Paris and London first created these essential features of the modern cityscape and, in doing so, defined urban living for all of us.
Restaurants were named after the fare they served: restorants, or restaurants, that is, bouillons or essences of meat intended to restore the inner balance and good digestion of urban sophisticates. Finding himself unable to consume without nausea even something as plain as strips of toast dipped in a boiled egg, des Esseintes himself has recourse to such a palliative in À Rebours, sending a servant hurrying off to Paris to procure a device for making beef essence. This will, he has been promised, help ‘to control his anaemia, to arrest the decline of his health, and to conserve what little strength he still possessed’.
Restorants tackled the side effects of overconsumption as well as the ingestion of food that was too highly seasoned or interacted badly with something already eaten. In these cases the natural rhythms of digestion were interrupted, leaving undigested matter festering in the body, where it produced foul miasmas that rose in turn to the head, leading to mental imbalance. Overeating caused too much blood to be produced, requiring blood-letting in some cases. Digestive and circulatory problems such as these also overtaxed the lungs. The Latin motto outside Minet’s restaurant in the Rue de Poulies (est. 1767) promised ‘tasty sauces to titillate your bland palate; here the effete find healthy chests’.
Restorants were a medical treatment for a condition to which Parisians were felt to be particularly prone, owing to the spicy nature of their meals and the way in which they were prepared and served. In the 1770s restaurants called themselves maisons de santé (‘emporia of health’). In his Parallèle, Mercier noted that in Paris food mainly consisted of soup, which thickened the blood and gave rise to indigestion. Along with ‘spicy sauces, seasoned fricassees, stews and the like’, all this liquid weakened the body, while the meat gravies served in the finer houses overheated it, again provoking severe illness. Parisian food was so succulent and so artfully prepared that it overstimulated the appetite, making people eat too much. ‘Oh, and to top it all one stuffs oneself with bread!’ Mercier complained, noting how parents encouraged children to eat it. ‘And so the child eats too much, in order to have something to eat along with its bread.’
As the warning against gravy indicates, the restorant did not consist of the juices of the meat, but its pure essence. Although detailed recipes exist for such concoctions, in works such as the Suite des dons de Comus (1742), there was a sense in which a restorant was not about simple cuisine so much as anti-cuisine. A restorant might be prepared using onions, turnips, celery, chicken, veal, beef and ham. But it was cooked so slowly, being simmered for many hours, that it served to concentrate these ingredients, enabling one to drink, in effect, a quantity of food that could not possibly be eaten in its original form. Was this an innovation, an unprecedented advance in the technology of food preparation, worthy of an age of progress? Was it a return to a simpler, older way of life? Or was it some worrying combination of the two, a sophisticated prophylactic: allowing jaded sophisticates to continue their unwholesome Parisian lifestyle of overconsumption without suffering any of the natural consequences?
Though they promised to restore the individual’s natural balance, restorants could be unsettling. The refinement they represented could smack of a decadent, self-destructive order, rather than an enlightened, healthy society. It was feared that a body used to heavily processed food might become unable to digest plain fare. There were risks, therefore, in turning what should be the simplest of skills into what de Jaucourt referred to in his Encyclopédie entry as ‘la cuisine par excellence’: an art intended to disguise foodstuffs so as to promote overconsumption. Though the degeneracy of des Esseintes’s enfeebled digestion is a century away, even in the age of Rousseau the philosophes could view the fad for restorants as a straw in the wind.8 Rousseau noted that there were Frenchmen who held that France was the only nation where people knew how to eat, but he did not view this positively: ‘I would say on the contrary that it is only the French who do not know how to eat, since so special an art is required to make dishes digestible to them.’
The first restaurant (so-called) was established in the Hôtel Aligre, on the Rue St Honoré, a house owned by a leading figure in the Paris parlement, Étienne François d’Aligre. As with many early Parisian restaurants, it was probably on the first floor, where the finest rooms of a hôtel particulier were usually to be found.10 It was opened in 1766 by Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau, the third son of a small landowner and merchant who came to Paris early in the 1760s, at which point he had added the aristocratic sounding ‘de’ to his name. Excited by the debate on how France had incurred its massive national debt during the Seven Years War, in 1769 Roze de Chantoiseau published his own ideas in a pamphlet. By then the administration of Louis XVI’s chief minister, Choiseul, had grown tired of a debate that it had initially encouraged. Roze de Chantoiseau ended upjoining the authors of earlier works in the prison of For-l’Évêque. Among his more successful schemes was that for a universal registry office along the lines of that established in London by John Fielding in 1750, as well as a commercial directory, the Almanach général, which appeared regularly for many years.
A concern for healthy circulation ran throughout all these projects. The Almanach duly listed Roze de Chantoiseau’s own establishment under ‘Le Restaurateur’, in the section ‘Caterers, Innkeepers and Hoteliers’. His entry promised ‘fine and delicate meals for 3-6 livres per head, in addition to the
items expected of a restaurateur’.13 In his introductory essay he promised that the directory would serve to make all Parisians more mutually serviceable by helping them locate each other and so avail themselves of the increasingly specialized goods and services to hand in the metropolis. The Almanach was a microcosm of the city, imposing order on its web of streets and enterprises.
If there was one place that came closest to being a concrete realization of this ordered city or ville policée, it was the Palais Royal, which in the 1780s also served as home to several of the city’s restaurants, including that run by Jean-Baptiste La Barrière as well as Postal’s. It housed Gendron’s patisserie, where the great chef Antonin Carême worked in the 1790s. In the early nineteenth century it was the site of Jacques Christophe Naudet’s restaurant , and of Véry’s, which moved there from the Tuileries in 1805. It also housed Le Grand Véfour, which remains there today. The palace was the home of Louis-Philippe-Joseph, Duc de Chartres, and had extensive gardens, which had served as a kind of public park for local residents. Such open space was hard to find in Paris.