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New Worlds: Dining Out

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If I had to guess, I’d estimate that the shop fronts in my local downtown area are approximately one-quarter to one-third restaurants.

Whether I’m right or not, their frequency is high. I don’t think there’s a single block you can walk down without passing at least one dining establishment, usually several — and while some of them come and go, many have been there for years. Who eats at all of them? How are we able to support so many restaurants in such a small area?

Partly the answer is “affluence.” Any time you eat out, your meal will be more expensive than if you ate the exact same things at home, because your bill also has to cover the paid labor of whoever made it, the site costs of the restaurant, and so forth. We have a slew of such places where I live because lots of people here have disposable income; as affluence rises in an area, you’re likely to see the percentage of eateries rise.

But that isn’t the whole answer. Some of it also comes down to convenience, from several different directions. There’s a blurred line between “restaurant” and “non-restaurant food-selling establishment;” for example, it’s been very common historically to have bakeries supplying the neighborhood with bread and such, because it’s easier to fire up one set of ovens before the crack of dawn and produce baked goods en masse. In fact, while rural households could generally shift for themselves, urban residents often had no means of cooking at home. If they wanted a hot meal instead of some bread and cheese and maybe a piece of fruit, the only way to get it was to visit a local stall or mobile cart (predecessor of the food truck) for a meat pie, a bowl of noodles, or whatever else might be on offer.

Modern appliances have made the task of home food prep easier, of course. But many of the restaurants near me are probably patronized, at least during the lunch hour, by people working in nearby stores (including other restaurants), offices, and so forth. These people could bring bagged lunches with them; some probably do. That used to be the standard, though, and it’s less common now. Why?

I suspect, though I can’t prove, that the answer involves a combination of “feminism” and “income inequality.” You can’t assume now that most employees have a wife at home who will prepare lunch for them in the morning; the wives, if present, may well have their own jobs they’re busy getting ready for. The same goes for dinner and the notion that a worker will come home to find it waiting for him. Some women have no interest in cooking, and many families these days — despite that overall affluence thing I mentioned before — need at least two breadwinners to maintain their lifestyle. We choose to spend money on eating out so as to preserve more of our leisure time.

That tradeoff isn’t entirely new. Another strand that feeds into modern restaurant culture comes by way of inns and hotels: like poorer urban residents, travelers can’t easily feed themselves with anything other than cold repasts, and stopping to cook means covering less ground each day. It makes sense, then, that the establishments providing them with a place to sleep would also provide food. Similarly, taverns will frequently offer some kind of food along with their booze. Even if they offer only one dish and it’s hardly better than slop, locals might still eat there, for reasons going back to that matter of convenience. Unmarried people without a spouse to cook for them benefit from the support, and families may view it as an occasional treat, a vacation from the toil of preparing dinner at home.

Some of these places rise well above slop, though. High-end establishments can become well enough known for their cuisine that people will go out of their way to experience it; I once stayed in a hotel in Bangalore, the Leela Palace, whose Sunday brunch apparently draws famous Bollywood stars on a semi-regular basis. Do that well enough, and the restaurant stops being just an add-on to the hotel.

Or it was never an add-on to anything in the first place. I could be wrong in this impression, but Song Dynasty China seems to have been the first society to develop restaurants as we think of them today. Shops selling cooked food are far older and more widespread, of course; Pompeii, for example, contains scores of thermopolia, the ancient equivalent of modern fast food. Many ancient cities show evidence of such establishments, either in their records or their remains. But if you envision a restaurant where you go inside, sit at a table, and order from a menu that includes a variety of finely-prepared dishes . . . eleventh- and twelfth-century China may be where that started.

These probably grew out of tea houses, along the same lines as the taverns I mentioned before. But in the cities of that period, a symbiosis developed with other aspects of urban society, like public entertainment — and it’s not coincidental that Song China also featured an affluent middle class. The poor could rarely afford treats, and the elite had their own staff to take care of everything, but those in between had money to spend on enjoying themselves. The result was a booming foodie culture, with diverse menus, specialty dishes, and customers who took it for granted that of course they could eat whatever their hearts desired . . . so long as their purses held out.

I meant “diverse menus” in the sense of offering more than one or two types of food, but there’s another sense in which that word is relevant here. One last piece contributing to the flourishing of commercial dining culture in modern times might well be immigration. My town isn’t just full of restaurants; it’s full of Japanese and Mexican restaurants, along with numerous places offering Indian, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Peruvian, Mongolian hot-pot, and more. When large migrations happen from one country to another, the new residents often take comfort in being able to have the food of their homeland — or whatever approximation they can manage with local ingredients. (“Ethnic cuisine” in a diaspora may not look all that much like cuisine in its place of origin, especially once time passes and the two strands diverge.) Over time the non-immigrant population can develop a taste for it, took enjoying not just the convenience of having someone else cook, but the novelty of different flavor palettes and methods of preparation. The result can be a dizzying array of foodways jostling shoulder-to-shoulder, merging into fusion styles — Korean taco trucks; tikka masala burritos — and giving rise to whole new experiences.

I’ve learned to cook in the last few years, but I’m still not the kind of woman who really enjoys spending time in the kitchen. Being able to get a wide variety of tasty meals that someone else has made is absolutely a feature of the society I live in.

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: Dining Out”

  1. Phyllis Irene Radford

    Before paper became affordable and plentiful, the menu was a chalk board or equivalent with whatever the cook found cheap at the market that morning. Choices tended to be seasonal. Paper menus opened up possibilities of what the cook could make and not just what someone chose to make.

    Refrigeration has also been a huge boon to all cooks–home and commercial. Prior to cold storage the cook would spend most of the day gathering and preparing fresh food–no more than two or three days old, except for root vegetables. A fridge frees up huge amounts of time. Gathering fresh veggies and tending the garden from which they come can take half a day. Meat no longer has to be salted or pickled or dried.

    I’m glad I live in this century with all the conveniences of modern life.

  2. ‘I suspect, though I can’t prove, that the answer involves a combination of “feminism” and “income inequality.”’

    You expanded on the feminism but I think dropped the second one. I would venture something like “a lot of people around who are getting paid enough more than the food-preparers that it makes sense to eat out a lot”. USA inequality means there’s a lot of cheap labor available for the richer, but someone has to be the cheap labor; Europe income looks worse in PPP adjustment, and I suspect a lot of that is simply not having a large working class getting only $14,000 a year (US minimum wage).

    The diversity is probably part of it, especially for me, and for places that offer food that would exceed my patience time anyway. I usually go out for food that I can’t at least approximate at home: Thai and Indian yes, Italian or sandwiches no, I can *do* those.

  3. It wasn’t until modern times that perpetual ovens even began. Those ovens where the heat is applied continually? Time was you built a fire in your oven, heated it up, then raked out the fire and ashes and put in the baked goods to bake — several times for different heats as the thing cooled off.

    This REALLY encouraged bakeries and even communal ovens.

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