From TB to Covid 19: the rise and fall of the restaurant

by | Dec 1, 2022 | Opinion

Born to service the sufferers of one respiratory disease, will restaurants be finished off by another?

Restaurants have been doing it tough over the last couple of years. Since the first Covid lockdown restaurants have been going to the wall, suffering from chronic staff shortages, and have witnessed the rise and rise of Uber Easts and other food delivery services along with the parallel emergence of ‘ghost kitchens’. On top of all this comes the news from the UK that Restaurant Gordon Ramsey has been targeted by environmental protesters for its meat-heavy menu and high prices in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis. It would seem restaurants can’t catch a break. Perhaps its time to collectively throw in the dish towel and admit defeat?

I would be sad to see them go. For many years restaurants were my life. They were my livelihood and my recreation, my career and my hobby, my day job and my nightlife. I ran the front-of-house for high-end Italian bistros, and cheap-as-chips Japanese ramen bars. I loved the comaraderie of restaurants, the ones I worked for and the ones I didn’t; the glass of something special from the bar, the sneaky extra plate from the kitchen, and the joy of returning the favour when I recognised a fellow hospo professional at one of my tables.

The word restaurant comes from the French to restore or to rejuvenate. The word originally referred to a dish. According to Rebecca Spang’s excellent book The Invention of the Restaurant, a restaurant in 18th century Paris was a kind of boullion or broth served as a tonic or restorative to those in poor health. Recipes called for a variety of meats, usually ham and veal, along with chicken, partridge, or pheasant, to be sweated for hours in a tightly sealed kettle or bain marie. Sometimes gold coins, diamonds, rubies, or sapphires were added to the mix. It was popular with those living with ‘a weakness of the chest’– a catch-all term for sufferers from allergies, asthma, tuberculosis, and oher respiratory ailments. Tuberculosis was often assosiated with intellectual acuity and, despite being a terrible disease, was also determinedly fashionable. It lent its victims a haunted, hollow-eyed intensity, not dissimilar to the ‘heroin chic’ of modern rockstars. No wonder restaurants quickly became fashionable.

Not to over-egg the symbolism…

The name of the dish soon became the name of the establishments at which it was served. The restauranteurs started adding dishes to the menu to attract a wider audience and before long the restaurant as we know it was born.

When I worked in restaurants I would often consider the orginal meaning of the word and how a good restaurant still had the power to restore and rejuvenate. There was something immensely satisfying in seeing someone walk through the door in a foul mood, their workday having worn them down with petty trivialities, suffering from a thousand cuts inflicted by small insults and minor indignities. To watch them sit down in a comfortable chair and experience the warm smile of a server as he brings bread and oil and a list of things that are good to eat. To see the veil of unhappiness lift as someone else brings them something cold to drink and they realise, for the first time that day, perhaps the first time that week, that somebody is taking care of them, that everything is going to be all right.

But for restaurants, since Covid, things have not been all right. The explosion of restaurants in France in the 18th century was often attributed to the French revolution, as the former cooks of beheaded aristocrats made their way to the cities to cater for the newly empowered bourgeoisie. In modern times we are seeing the dismantling of that same middleclass. Restaurants are finding themselves playing to a dwindling audience. The protestors who invaded Restaurant Gordon Ramsey weren’t only there to highlight the ecological cost of an 8oz steak, they were also there to express their horror that people were spending hundreds of pounds on a single meal at a time when growing swathes of the population were struggling to put food on the table. It was a howl of class rage.

In the 18th century, when sufferers from tuberculosis were huddling together in a room to take their tiny cups of restoritive bullion, Louis Pasteur and the discovery of germ theory were still a hundred years in the future. People believed that diseases originated from miasmas, or bad air, that drited from swamps and forests and bodies of water to infect our lungs and make us sick. They had no idea that disease didn’t arrive on the winds or from the earth but rather from the lungs and airways of their fellows. Fast forward to the modern day and, in the midst of a global pandemic, the last thing most of us want to do is sit in a room, tightly packed with a hundred or so other humans, to eat, drink, and breathe in the atmosphere.

The period between the 1990s and the pandemic, I believe will come to be seen as a golden age for restaurants. The likes of Anthony Bourdain in the US and Marco Pierre White in the UK, ushered in a era where it was cool to work in restaurants, where chefs in particular, seized the mantle of the kings (and it was mostly kings) of the working class. Restaurants became increasingly democratic: gastropubs emerged, fancy burger joints flourished, Instagram put a glamorous lustre on the dishes and, by extension, those that ate, served and prepared them. Covid has put an end to that golden age.

Peak Marco Pierre White

Restaurants will no doubt survive in some form or another. Here in New Zealand, our cafes will continue to cater to the masses. The power of cheese scones will not be dimisnished by a mere global pandemic. And the high-end restaurants here and abroad will continue to service the billionaires and plutocrats of this world.

But the restaurants that looked after the inbetween, the restaurants that began as a healthy broth for cosumptives and went on to become symbols of bourgeois economic power, their days may be numbered.

I’ll be sad to see them go.

Featured image: Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash


About the Author

David Wrigley

David is a writer and musician from Kemureti/ Cambridge. He has been published in Noble Rot, Nourish Magazine, Turbine|Kapohau, New Zealand Poetry Yearbook, and is currently working on his first novel. He has done his time in restaurants in Aotearoa and the UK. Oh, yes. He has done his time.

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