Eating has always been a sociable event, from primitive campfire cooking to reclining on lectuli at lavish Greek and Roman banquets. However, although taverns and inns had always existed, the restaurant as an institution didn’t fully emerge until the 17th century. The word “restaurant” initially appeared in the 16th century, meaning a restorative broth, but by 1771 the term had mutated to refer to an “establishment specializing in the sale of restorative foods” as well. Like so much in culinary history, the Parisians owned the sophisticated version of the concept as American and British visitors marveled at the phenomenon.
We have the aspirational middle classes of post-revolutionary France to thank for the restaurant we recognize today. As the popularity of dining out grew, top French chefs like Marie-Antoine Carême and Auguste Escoffier took their talents to London and raised the restaurant game in grand hotels and dapper gentlemen’s clubs. Taste, whether of the palate or the eye, began to matter.
The sheer proliferation and glossy sheen of hospitality environments today bring earlier times to mind, particularly in the baroque leanings of contemporary Dutch designer Marcel Wanders and his ilk. In the 19th century, interiors followed the French and Viennese belle-epoque style; decor exuding prosperity and a theatrical grandness was the fashion. Mega-dining complexes like Delmonico’s in New York and the Trocadero in London reigned, replete with Corinthian columns, chandeliers, red velvet swags, and lavish gilding.
The 1930s saw some movement toward the simplification of restaurant design, but it was the iconoclastic 1960s that signaled the true democratization of dining out. With a diversity of eating venues and socially mobile patrons hungry for new experiences, design was a powerful tool to distinguish between the new bistros, brasseries, cafes, diners, and casual dining chains that emerged.
The late 20th century saw the return of power-dining: Mega-restaurants like Quaglino’s in London and Tao in New York came to the fore with the unstoppable rise of superstar chefs operating in league with big-name designers such as Philippe Starck, Christian Liaigre, Adam Tihany, and David Rockwell.
But sure as bust follows boom, evolution has been on the menu. Ostentatious, big-budget productions haven’t disappeared, but the major players are adapting to the times: Global brands are giving way to locavore concerns. Many of the cooler-than-thou venues in urban centers are egalitarian, chef-proprietor neighborhood joints that embrace a new farm-to-table simplicity showcasing their foodstuffs with open, canteenlike kitchens and deli-style food displays.
Today, it’s not just about what or where you eat, but also the how and the who that is fetishized. In progressive quarters there is less attention paid to staggering wine towers, faddish color-changing lighting, and Vegas-hotel-lobby-style interiors: Splashy design has been upstaged by the food and its provenance—–which, naturally, is a design aesthetic in and of itself.