A REALLY REALLY BRIEF HISTORY
From hunter-gatherers sitting under a tree, eating and telling tales around the fire, to family run restaurants and silver service.
Evolution of Modern Humans
Modern humans (Homo sapiens, that’s us) having evolved from early hominids such as australopithecus man (2.5 million years ago) first appeared in East Africa some 300,000 years ago. Since then we have evolved very little, and are pretty much as were then. Being nomadic (hunter- gatherers) they were constantly on the move eating whatever they could find. They were both carnivores and herbivores, a condition we still have today.
Then around 70,000 years ago, the first big change happened. We left Africa and migrated all over the world looking for food and carrying on our nomadic lifestyle. Only about 5000 made the initial move out of Africa. Over the next 60,000 years we went everywhere, colonising the planet from Europe to Asia to Australia and about 15,000 years ago, to the Americas. Of course these places didn’t have names then, they weren’t countries yet. Just the planet and nature and us wandering about, hunting and foraging.
The second big change coincided with the end of the last ice age some 11,000 years ago. The new weather patterns made it possible to settle down. As so we did. For the first time, we learnt to cultivate the earth and domesticate animals. This departure from hunting and foraging to farming became known as the Neolithic period (10,000 BCE to 3,500 BCE) and was the first major cultural leap in human history. This transformation irrevocably changed the way we relate to nature.
The first important settlement and therefore the birthplace of modern human civilization took place in the area known as the Fertile Crescent. Located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, in what is today Iraq, it was then known (around 4500 BCE) as Mesopotamia.
The abundance of food allowed the population to grow. We could now devote ourselves to other activities. Mesopotamia gave us our first cities, writing, maths, medicine, the wheel, roads, calendars, religions, astrology, armies, priest-kings and beer. New professions developed and trade and urban communities thrived. New civilisations slowly emerged, influencing the most important social, economic and cultural aspects of life. No more hunting and foraging for food. We had, as modern humans, lived for 300,000 years as nomadic hunter-gatherers. It has only been 6,500 years since we started taming nature and living in a sedentary fashion.
From early restaurants to present day
The forerunners of today’s restaurants can be traced back to these earliest civilisations. Mesopotamians and Egyptians celebrated religious rites and important family events in lavish banquets and feasts that included food and music. The beer halls, where food was served, became popular hangout places.
Long-distance trade played an essential role in the
development of our food culture and eating. The most famous
trade route was the Silk Road that linked Mesopotamia with
China from 130 BCE. We can imagine the humble rest stops
along the trade routes and marketplaces. Remains of such food stalls, which were spotted in the Minoan city of Akrotiri on the
Greek island of Santorini, can be traced back to 1,650 BCE.
Ancient Romans contributed to the history of eating out with their Thermopoliums, where food could be purchased from
communal kitchens. There were around 150 Thermopoliae in
Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The Roman
Thermae are another example of establishments where people
gathered not only to bathe but to eat, relax and socialise. The
most monumental one, the baths of Caracalla, was completed in
By the Middle Ages –500CE-1500CE– food provision was well established, offering travellers, pilgrims, merchants and crusaders food in inns, hostelries, and monasteries. Most of these establishments were run by families as still is the case in large parts of the world today.
Public eating places, much like today’s restaurants, existed already in China during the Song Dynasty (1127-1279 CE).
The world’s oldest surviving restaurants
Madrid’s Sobrino de Botín opened in 1725 (Francisco de Goya worked as a waiter there before becoming a painter). The Guinness Book of Records claims this is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world. Well, not by a long chalk, as it turns out.
The legendary La Tour d’Argent restaurant in Paris, France, has a wine cellar worth 25 million euros and is famous for its pressed duck. It counts Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin among its customers, and George Orwell among its dishwashers. It was founded in 1582.
Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, originally called The Pilgrim, is a pub in Nottingham, England, built in the 18th century on the site of a castle brewery which dates back to 1189. (‘Trip’, in 12 th century English, meant ‘a stop on a journey’ rather than the journey itself).
St. Peter Stiftskulinarium is housed within the walls of St. Peter’s Abbey in Salzburg, Austria. It was mentioned as early as 803 by Alcuin of York –an English scholar who, for a while, was in the service of the bishop of Salzburg. It is almost certainly the world’s oldest existing restaurant.
Bianyifang Restaurant in Beijing has been going since 1416.
La Couronne is France’s oldest restaurant, and was founded in Rouen, the Norman capital, in 1345.
The Honke Owariya in Kyoto, Japan –which is also still around– opened just a few decades later in 1465.