Did China invent the Restaurant and the Menu?

I woke up this morning to this lovely little piece written by my good friend over at Quirky Beijing, who is back to blogging regularly (yay), about China being possibly the birthplace of restaurants.
She refers to an article/study by Nikolas Keifer (pdf) at Kornell School of Economics that credits France as the birthplace of the restaurant concept then moves on to say it’s China, most specifically Hangzhou who Marco Polo once referred to as “The most noble city and the best that is in the world”.. Much like Quirky Beijing, I’m very much in disagreement with big parts on the article.. (which doesn’t make it any less of a good read)

A thermopolium in Pompeii

In Ancient Rome, a Thermopolium was considered at type of bar/restaurant with the Themopolium of Asellina being a prime example:

The Thermopolium of Asellina is one of the most complete examples of a thermopolium in Pompeii. Complete jugs and dishes were found on the counter, as well as a kettle filled with water. The ground floor in the thermapolia Aselina was used for people to eat and drink, and some stairs led guest rooms on the second floor.
It had a typical structure consisting of a doorway open to the street, a counter with holes (dolia) in it for food or wine. It had shrines for the Lares (household gods) , Mercury (god of commerce) and Dionysus (god of Wine) , as these were the most important gods for this occupation. Upstairs, there were guest rooms as well, so this may have also been used as an Inn, however, many think that this may have been a brothel due to the names of many women written on one of the walls of the Thermopolium.

Like in any science, the foundation of the argument is the underlying hypothesis. So what is a restaurant? From Brittanica:

Establishment where refreshments or meals are served to paying guests.

Taverns, Inns, holes in the wall and even street stalls would qualify at this point. A Roman Themopolium definitely fits the description!

So did China invent the restaurant? probably not! no more than France did… The interesting thing in China is that it’s probably easier to find establishments that more or less ressemble those restaurants of old, as described in kungfu movies and novels with establishments like Feng Bo Zhuang being a great example: Walk in, sit down, food is brought over.. if you like it, keep it. if you don’t like it, send it back and ask for something different.

That said/written, there seems to be a shortage of information online about restaurants in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and even the Ottoman Empire… I might have to investigate things a bit further down the road.

Another which seems to be brought up often is that China invented the menu, mostly using the fact they had paper as an argument… again, I’m inclined to disagree!

The famous yellow stela of Nimrud, which describes a celebration feast at the Assyrian capital in 879 B.C. and is said to contain the world’s oldest surviving menu, is intact. (source)

I’m pretty sure I’ve also seen a stone tablet with a varied selection of brontosaurus ribs on the Flinstones at some point.

One thing is sure though.. at least as far as the Guiness folks are concerned: The oldest existing restaurant in the world is still the Botin in Madrid dating back to 1725. Some folks might argue that Ma Yu Ching’s Bucket Chicken House 马豫兴桶子鸡 in Kaifeng has that honor but me thinks not. They might however claim to have one of the oldest brand names in the world I guess since there is documentation of them during the Northern era (960–1127) of the Song Dynasty.

all and all, just a few ramblings and a lot of interesting information kickstarted by Quirky Beijing’s lovely piece.. I’m glad she’s back to blogging!

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