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Restaurants and Cafés: Publics and Politics

Restaurants and cafés are such a ubiquitous, normalised feature of modern life that one might assume they have always existed. They are the most common non-domestic spaces for drinking coffee and eating. The types of publics that are associated with both, and how political these spaces are, have a dynamic and shifting history. Historians and sociologists claim that they played a part in the development of the definitively modern public sphere. This article will primarily focus on the development of the restaurant but also bring in a few relevant points of the related history of café culture. It will sketch the origins of the restaurant from a source of healthy, restorative food, to its expansion towards the type of spaces we are familiar with today. I will outline the early links of both spaces to a politicised public sphere before making the case that, after this initial period, they were for a long time apolitical spaces, with the restaurant in particular assuming the role of fulfilling individual gastronomic desires. Of course, restaurants are also spaces for communal gatherings, but after their initial role as vehicles for social change, they came to lack a genuinely “public” configuration. Rebecca Spang, author of ‘The Invention of the Restaurant’, puts the trajectory as1

beginning with a moment in which restaurants were conceived as a potential site for social, as well as individual, regeneration, and continuing to a time when such an understanding of them is almost unfathomable.

Finally, focusing on the restaurant, I will conclude with some evidence for a recent trend towards these spaces for eating being actively used for political ends, albeit in a much narrower way, focusing on food provenance and politics.

Restaurants exist in pretty much every culture and country, so much so that they can be taken almost entirely for granted. But they have not been around forever. Of course, some form of purchasing food outside of one’s home, while traveling for instance, has a long history often associated with urbanisation. Inns and public houses that served food were a feature of the Roman Empire and other ancient civilisations. This humble tradition continued through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe.  But restaurants, in the sense of a privately owned space, with a varied menu, open to the public, with aspirations towards fine dining, have their roots in Paris and the French Revolution. Like most ‘origin myths’ the story of the genesis of the restaurant is not as causally straightforward as is sometimes reported.  A common assumption is that the French Revolution gave birth to the modern restaurant. However like any social trend, its birth is more complex. The structure of the food production system pre-French Revolution was primarily based around food guilds, each with discrete and specific responsibilities ­­– for instance cheese making or charcuterie. In the accepted narrative, the guild structure was credited as holding back the development of restaurants as it was technically difficult to obtain a licence to work across different food crafts. The consensus is then that the dissolution of the guilds post Revolution paved the way for a new eating culture that had the modern restaurant at its heart. However, as Rebecca Spang outlines, rules around these food portfolios were not as hard and fast as commonly thought, as in reality, she says, “the futility of enforcing divisions among the food trades derived in part from the combinative nature of the work itself”.2

So while these political, economic and regulatory conditions are often listed as causal to the birth of the restaurant, she also credits culture: pre-Revolutionary attitudes towards gastronomy and health. The very first restaurants, which were pre-Revolution, were permitted to serve only restorative bouillons which had self-proclaimed health benefits. They were a far cry from the multi-course rarefied fine dining establishments that we later associate with the name. The early ‘restaurants’ thus satisfied a French cultural desire for food with health benefits, but even pre-Revolution, working around the guild restrictions, they had begun to evolve into spaces serving a more varied and yet still quite luxury food offering. As such, restaurants were responding to cultural tastes. This change in taste and the provision for satisfying shifting consumer desire is important to recognise, as important as the Revolutionary changes to the food industry. As Rebecca Spang notes,3 

as much a scientific innovation as a culinary curiosity, the opening of the first restaurant responded to eighteenth century elite culture’s preoccupation with the pursuit of health as well as to its fascination with cuisine.

Therefore, both structural and cultural factors led to the birth of this new type of eating space. Alongside the dissolution of the food guilds, which came hand in hand with the Revolution, many chefs who had previously cooked privately for aristocrats and royalty found themselves in Paris and out of work. Thus, Paris was a ripe centre for the creation of the restaurant as we know it. Essentially, a situation of structural flux and a growing public interest in the culinary arts – for reasons of health and luxury – encouraged the embryonic restaurants to develop towards fine-dining establishments. Stephen Mennell, in his seminal work on food history in Britain and France writes,4]

the beginnings antedate the Revolution. But the Revolution itself had effects both on the demand for restaurants and in making it possible for supply to respond to that demand.

In broad historical terms, early restaurants in the modern period were credited with incubating civic culture, ushering in a new and increasingly discursive public sphere. With changes in public shared spaces, there were accordingly shifts in public behaviour. The restaurant is included in this analysis, but attention also focuses on the humble café. The practice of drinking of coffee in Europe was introduced through Turkish slaves and later trade between Venice and North Africa. Although coffee itself may have trickled through in the 16th century, coffee-houses became a more common establishment in the 17th century. Markman Ellis, in his study on the spread of the coffee-house, states that “the London coffee-house was [..] built upon principles of friendly and discursive sociability”.5This shift from ale-drinking in taverns to sober coffee drinking in a new type of public space – the café, has been linked with the evolution of a new form of sociality and civic culture. As Steven Pincus further notes, these were “places that celebrated sober discourse rather than inebriated play, cultural exchange rather than social status”.6 The appreciation of sobriety links to to a broader trend towards productivity and the value of labour.  Cafés were places for talking and reading political literatures (which were more readily available in the 17th century thanks to print technologies). Pincus writes,7

the coffeehouse was not only the place where one went to collect intelligence; it was also the site of learned discussions about a wide variety of issues.

The cultural influence of the café and restaurant has been much theorised by heavyweight sociologists and cultural theorists.  Jurgen Habermas’s central thesis on the historical evolution of this new, distinctively modern era posits café society as central to the development of the “bourgeois public sphere” and modern political culture. He argues that the social and cultural habits of the late 17th century inculcated a new type of public, where matters that affected the public were felt to be the legitimate concern of people beyond those considered the ‘rulers’. Ellis’ take on the grander claims made by academics like Habermas and Eagleton is that,8

the social life of the coffee-house in the early eighteenth-century seems to be a paradigm or model of the important transformations in English society in this period.

While these historical and sociological accounts often look at the café, there are parallels between the café space and that of the restaurant. Both Spang and Mennell include, with caveats, the early restaurants in Habermas’ analysis of the new public sphere and new social order which emerged during this time. As Mennell notes,9

the restaurant is in its way a symbol of wider shifts on social power. For Habermas [….] the growth of literary and cultural forums of opinion was an essential prerequisite for the development of a genuinely critical and political domain of bourgeois public opinion. The coffee-houses and cafes, taverns and restaurants in England and France played a key part in making possible that relatively autonomous sphere of opinion.

The restaurant therefore also features in this analysis as a space for such publics to emerge. However it is worthwhile to maintain some caution in entirely conflating cafés and restaurants; as Spang describes, “while in term of admission policy, the restaurant was at least as public as a café […] in terms of its presiding ethos the restaurant was a decidedly different sort of place”.10 The restaurant in particular, while in some way helping to create the public sphere of Habermas et al, fixates on private consumer desires from its early inception. Spang highlights that restaurants existed in a space between public and private, and that,11

in the restaurant, new forms of publicness could be as much about consumption, display and spectacle as they were about dialogue or discussion… urban topography and political engagement never matched up so neatly.

The restaurant as it was conceived of in France became the norm across Europe and the New World. Steven Pincus argues that – partly credited to coffeehouse culture - “a public sphere in the Habermasian sense did emerge in later seventeenth-century England, precipitated largely by a thirst for political discussion and a desire to preserve English liberties”,12 However, as capitalism progressed and commodification of eating experiences became more common, eating in restaurants and drinking in cafés became less about being part of a class of politically interested commentators and more about purely consuming for pleasure. While early restaurants and cafes have been linked to a more politicised sharing of knowledge and news, even incubating radical movements invested in free speech, restaurants in particular began to function more as service providers that satisfied and showcased different forms of consumption and displays of wealth and taste.  Even by the late 18th Century,13

restaurants had come to be seen as the physical manifestation of gastronomy.

With a focus on gastronomy and a shift towards taste Spang views the restaurant’s development as symptomatic of a move towards an increasingly private sphere of interaction within the seemingly ‘public’ space for eating and subsequently. This has an effect on the types of publics created therein, a phenomena Habermas describes as a shift from,14

a culture-debating to a culture-consuming public.

Coming into the 20th Century and beyond, eating out became much more intensely about both creating and fulfilling personal desires. Joanna Finkelstein’s ‘Fashioning Appetite’ suggests,15

the modern restaurant becomes an emotional space in which new sensations and states of mind can be discovered and enjoyed.

As the 20th Century progresses the forms restaurants took expanded; from fast food to mid-price chains all the way up to Michelin-star establishments. There was huge growth in every level: cheap, mid-price and high end, each of which catered to and informed particular taste-making agendas. Taking Spang’s perspective, this shift towards taste-making is symptomatic of the move towards an increasingly private sphere of interaction.  Alongside the private interaction facilitated in modern restaurant settings, the evolution of dishes became associated with a distance from the origins of food and the production processes involved. From fast-food chains with their obsession with serving a visibly sterile and industrially processed product, to the French-style high-end haute cuisine experience, which for a long time was about fantastical, highly stylised concoctions, as unreal and as distanced from natural origins as possible. The high fashion drives of the Michelin world on the one hand, and the demand for fast food in other types of restaurant on the other, lead to a negation or masking of the provenance and labour involved in  creating dishes. Such a process of removal or illusion could be read as signifying a form of capitalist alienation, divorcing the consumed dish from the labour and the earth in which it originally came. It’s a sweeping statement, but if the restaurant is a theatre for food, hiding what happens backstage was, for a long time, a primary objective. As food critic Ruth Reichl describes, “every restaurant is a theater, and the truly great ones allow us to indulge in the fantasy that we are rich and powerful”. Similarly, trends like molecular gastronomy aim to disguise and mask reality; contriving of food in ways we could not possibly attempt at home.

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The Dairy, Clapham, image courtesy of Robin Gill.

I would argue that alongside these trends towards spectacle and increasingly private spaces for consumption in the contemporary global restaurant scene, there are areas where politics has once again entered the equation. This is different to the historical broad publics created through restaurants and cafes. It is happening in a much simpler, narrower fashion and is being led by individual chefs and restaurant owners. Unlike the early unintentional creation of bourgeois publics, we see an agency on behalf of chefs and owners to highlight the origins of the food they serve – both in relation to the terroir or environment from which the food comes, and the producers involved in the production and sale of ingredients that contribute to the meal on the plate. Instead of a restaurant as an indulgent space distant from the hands, dirt and labour of production, these very things become foregrounded within the space for eating itself. From farm-to-table restaurants whose windows look out over the vegetable gardens, to open kitchens where the chefs at work is part of the theatre on show, some contemporary restaurants are attempting to bridge the disconnect between the earth and the plate of food on the table in front of you. As Robin Gill, owner and chef at the Dairy restaurant in London, a strong proponent of this approach describes,16

We have open kitchens in our restaurant spaces allowing our guests to get a sense of what’s going on, it’s not just a fashionable design statement but rather to bring the Kitchen into the restaurant space, we cook over wood and you will see whole cuts of meat tempering above the fire. In the room you will see jars of all seasons ferments and pickles, our artwork brings our rooftop garden and Farm into the room, with illustrations by our friend Eoin Ryan who has taken elements from the garden like fennel and our beehives.

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Beehives at The Dairy, Clapham, image courtesy of Robin Gill.

This kind of environmentally conscious, ethically-considerate approach to the restaurant space and how it is managed is not new, by any means, but perhaps it is something that has now become more mainstream.

Karen Leibowitz is owner of The Perennial restaurant in San Francisco, which coincidentally to the history of the restaurant has the aim of “finding the restorative element in restaurants” highlighted on its website. The Perennial is all about sustainability and, for Karen, this entails moving away from luxury and towards a greater connection with the environment. She comments,17

I believe that fine dining is becoming less absorbed in creating rarefied, luxurious spaces, which I see as part of a larger move toward engaging with a restaurant's context. I think you see this in the way that Noma has moved around the world and tried to bring different locations to bear on their cuisine and the physical space of the experience.

Restaurants like JP McMahon’s Aniar in Galway have an ethos of using local ingredients and referencing the specific locale of the West coast of Ireland. Such references come through not only in the food itself but in how it is presented within the considered interior of the restaurant space. Restaurants such as these mentioned are spaces for eating that are not just ethical or political in their choice of suppliers, but embed these values within the physical environment of the restaurant itself. It is true, however, that, at the level of the individual restaurant, the impact of this conscious detailing has its limits, particularly around producing raw food. David Prior, of Condé Nast Traveller and Vogue comments that the small scale of single restaurant growing has very little impact on the larger systems of food production,18]

you’d have to have some kind of scale. Otherwise it’s lip-service. Which is not to say it’s a bad thing. It’s still symbolic, symbolism is good.

All of this makes me hopeful. While Spang writes,19

in the past 230 years the restaurant has changed from a sort of urban spa into a ‘political’ public forum, and then into an explicitly and actively depoliticised refuge.

I would make the case that globally, restaurants like Gill’s Dairy, Leibowitz’s The Perennial, Aniar, Silo in Brighton (which has a zero-waste focus and ethos fully on show in its central composter), as well as many others, embody a contemporary trend towards subtly politicised restaurant spaces. Restaurants that do not aim to hide the backstage labour or environmental input of the food served, but instead aim to highlight this as central to how the diner should appreciate the dishes. Likewise, Enrico Crippa’s Ristorante Piazza Duomo in Alba, Italy, celebrates its proximity to its own vegetable garden where the chef personally goes every day to select and collect vegetables, herbs and flowers. This is not food alienated from the production processes and the people involved, but rather food that celebrates its provenance and earthly reality. Whether it’s farm-to-table, conscious dining or sustainable eating, an ethos of local production and being connected to local cultures and ecosystems is now a common doctrine   among the chef-conferences and high-end cookbooks; the Nordic model replacing or at least heavily influencing the older, classical French way of doing things. As David Prior comments, it’s possible that this is lip-service, and it would be easy for this to be the case, but I think there is potential for a genuine engagement with food politics. The politicisation occurring in this context is not on a mass-public scale, as in a new general public sphere akin to the 18th Century. It is true that the cost of eating out of course means that the publics engaged are narrower than Habermas’s observations on café culture. Yet it is still an intervention that is being made around the production of food by the chef proprietor of a given restaurant, towards an individual customer or groups of customers. This is not just a middle-class indulgence that ultimately leads to little change; control over suppliers and highlighting the origins of food through its presentation is one of the few things that a restauranteur can control. These acts within their own sphere of influence, whether symbolic, material or economic, they are tools to facilitate a politicised questioning or exploration within the restaurant space.  It is easy to take food for granted or be blind to unsustainable and unhealthy practices behind menus.  This is consciousness-raising around the issue that’s directly in front of you, the food that’s about to go in your mouth. Like the rise of the early bouillon restaurants to satisfy Parisian cultural notions of health and refinement, perhaps this trend towards rooted restaurants (in locale, in their values) can complement consumer desires for food produced with love and respect for ingredients, people and the planet. Chefs and restauranteurs may not be creating a new mass public, but they do have the power to educate, one plate and one person at a time. This is how larger changes can grow. Here’s to putting politics back on the plate.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Rebecca Spang, The invention of the restaurant: Paris and modern gastronomic culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press 2000, 5. 

Go to footnote reference 2.

ibid, 2.

Go to footnote reference 3.

ibid, 26.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Steven Mennell, All manners of food: eating and taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the present. Illinois, US: Illini 1996,139.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Markman Ellis, “An introduction to the coffee-house: A discursive model” Language & Communication, Volume 28, Issue 2, (April 2008)156-164, 158.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Steven Pincus, "Coffee Politicians Does Create": Coffeehouses and Restoration Political Culture," The Journal of Modern History 67, no. 4 (Dec.1995), 815.

Go to footnote reference 7.

ibid, 820.

Go to footnote reference 8.

Ellis, 161.

Go to footnote reference 9.

Mennell, 142.

Go to footnote reference 10.

Spang, 85

Go to footnote reference 11.


Go to footnote reference 12.

Pincus, 811.

Go to footnote reference 13.

Spang, 232.

Go to footnote reference 14.

Jurgen Habermas, The structural transformation of the public sphere. Cambridge, UK: Polity 2014, 438.

Go to footnote reference 15.

Joanne Finkelstein, Fashioning Appetite: Restaurants and the Making of Modern Identity. Columbia: Columbia University Press 2014, 11.

Go to footnote reference 16.

Caitriona Devery interview with Robin Gill, Food on the Edge Symposium Galway October 2017.

Go to footnote reference 17.

Caitriona Devery interview with Karen Leibowitz, LitFest, Ballymaloe May 2017.

Go to footnote reference 18.

Caitriona Deverynterview with David Prior, Litfest, Ballymaloe May 2017.

Go to footnote reference 19.

Spang, 3.

Caitriona Devery

Caitriona Devery is an associate editor of FEAST. Based in Dublin but originally from the Irish midlands, Caitriona currently works at University College Dublin. Caitriona writes mainly about food and the arts, and has written for a number of publications including Corridor8, Manchester Wire, and Rabble. Most recently, she managed a heritage project on the social history of the peat industry in Turraun, Co. Offaly.