The restaurant has not always been with us. It was a product of the birth of the modern. It allowed talent and creativity to leave the confines of the castles and large estates that could afford them, and democratized access to cuisine for the multitudes. The restaurant allowed the highest and most fabulous delights of life to be in the reach of everyone.
This also happened with painting, architecture, music, education, and all consumables but the point was especially prescient in the area of cuisine, which had long been seen as the proprietary reserve of the aristocracy. The invention of the public-access restaurant was a beautiful example of what Benjamin Constant called the difference in the liberty of the ancients and the moderns.
In the ancient world, to be free meant to be legally privileged by birth, title, or position with access to power. You had some stake in the management of public life, some measure of control over the laws under which you lived. Everyone else was excluded from access: peasants, merchants, slaves, and commoners – the disempowered and disenfranchised 99%.
That began to change in the late Middle Ages, as the plagues ended, feudalism gradually declined, commercial relationships became more decisive than political ones, and the masses of people found themselves with that seemingly impossible thing: opportunities to have a better life. They could earn money and keep it. The roads became safer so they could travel. They could start businesses and have hope for a better life.
I’m absolutely thrilled to report that there is a wonderful movie about how the restaurant figures into this great story. The movie is Delicious (2021). It’s based on a legend on events in the 18th century. A brilliant chef who served a Duke was treated brutally by his master on grounds that he had invented a new dish, and was thus sent away. He went to his home in a rural area and busied himself with other tasks. A woman shows up seeking to become his apprentice. He is reluctant because he saw no future in cooking if it only meant obsequious deference to the pre-revolution French aristocracy.
Eventually the Duke seeks to bring him back – no one else could cook as well – and sends word that he would like to eat in the chef’s home. When the day came, following weeks of preparation, the Duke and his entourage drove right by. Faced with another outrageous snub, he decides to forget cooking forever. His son and the apprentice have the idea of opening up a public house for serving farm-to-table food, where people can bring their own money and pay for what they consume.
The result is what legend says is the first modern restaurant. Shortly thereafter came the political revolution but the movie makes clear that the economic revolution came earlier. Commerce and business granted rights to commoners. The locally owned business unleashed talents and offered them democratically, potentially to all people regardless of class, language, social standing, and so on.
The story is beautiful and so rarely told. It is how the birth of modernity was bound up with the classless ambitions of the commercial economy, which broke down castes, democratized the material privileges of the elites, and made the possibility of genuine progress operational in the lives of the multitudes.
All of which points to an astonishingly grim reality of our time: in March 2020 and following, and in some places up to a year or even nearly two later, states around the world closed the restaurants! It never made sense even (the age and health stratification of Covid severity has always focused on the aged and unwell), though there were a thousand excuses. Even if the virus could spread in them, they could also spread in homes or really anywhere where people congregate. Regardless, isn’t the whole idea of freedom that people can choose to accept the risk or not?
None of the science matters here. What matters is the symbolism. Shutting the restaurants was a revanchist act, a return to a pre-modern age in which only the elites enjoyed access to the finer things. It was all part of fulfilling the February 28, 2020, wish of the New York Times to “go medieval” on the virus. It was heavily emblematic of how Covid controls inaugurated a new feudalism.
States were extremely reluctant to reopen them and, when they finally did, in many parts of the world, new protocols came to rule. There were capacity limits, as if the birdbrains in the bureaucracy know precisely how many people can be in a room before the virus sniffs out a chance to infect. Capacity limits necessarily privilege large restaurants over small ones. A small cafe that can only serve 25 could only serve 12 which is not profitable. But a large chain restaurant that can serve 250 can still make a go of it serving 125.
Another weird protocol demanded that patrons mask up when they come in but allowed them to unmask when seated. The servers, on the other hand, because they were standing and walking around (the virus presumably floats in the air 5 feet above the floor) had to stay masked up. The symbolism of this was utterly grotesque: a perfect picture of privilege vs servitude. It’s a wonder anyone tolerated it because this flies in the face of the democratized ethos of the market, in which people with equal freedom and rights all serve each other with mutual respect.
Thankfully most of this nonsense is going away but it needs to stay permanently gone. We need to reflect on the deep ethos behind all these rules and why they came about. It was about going medieval and hence rejecting outright the emancipatory thematics of post-feudal commercial life. The tavern, the coffee house, and the restaurant had a huge role in spreading the idea of universal rights. People could gather in respectable public places. They could share ideas. They could indulge in delights once reserved only to the elites.
But with lockdowns, the elites came back, and hence the bars, restaurants, and coffee houses had to be shut down. It was necessary for control, not of the virus but of the people because “the people” don’t deserve to sit at the table. It was necessary not to stop the spread of a virus, but the spread of ideas.
It must never be allowed to happen again. These small businesses – the local restaurant in particular – must be ferociously defended by every lover of freedom, rights, equality, and democracy. There is a deep and profoundly important history here. Those who would shut down the restaurants are likely also intent on shutting down the revolutionary meaning of their birth and existence, throwing us back to a past in which only the elites enjoy the practice and fruits of freedom.