The modern restaurants as we know them today emerged in France during the British Regency era. While food service has been around since ancient civilizations, it normally came in the form of inns geared toward travelers. Prior to the Regency era, food was served on the communal tables. Wait staff and menus were not existent. Customers, of the rooms, served themselves. In the late 18th century, an entire chamber was filled with tables for private “parties.” A server or waiter was assigned to a certain table. Customers were expected to choose what they desired off the menu. A novelty! Likewise, they were expected to pay for each food item, a la carte, without ever having to stay the night. The gall of the greedy! Restaurants catered to the local clientele out of the way of the questionable tourists.
Predictably, within the Regency and succeeding Victorian era, the menus were printed in French. French was the language of the well-bred, after all. The cost was also printed near the listed meal. Interestingly enough up until the early 20th century America the prices were printed in British pound sterling. No photographs or lithographs of the meals nor explanations of what each dish consisted of graced the page. Albeit, the titles of the dishes were straightforward and did not employ creative naming devices. Most of the meals were cooked in the popular French cuisine of the day with the occasional English favorites making their way on to the menu in the following years.
True to the time period and the lack of hygienic means, wine was served at all meals. Many types of wine were served throughout the length of dinner. Water never graced the tables since it was often contaminated. The haute manner of the time was the French manner; the meal was served in courses eaten separately. The portions were small.
The average restaurant meal consisted of five courses. It became en vogue for the upper echelons of society and the restaurants that catered to them, to out-do one another by serving as many courses as they could afford. The most courses I have come across in my research are twenty-one, but there very well could be a higher undocumented number. Courses, in such incidences, included specialty drinks such as the aperitif. Sometimes the hor d’oeuvres were separated into hot and cold courses.
The whole concept was rather unique. It was a way to be entertained without actively entertaining. The restaurant scene exploded in the metropolitan areas. It became a social event to see and be seen. Customers wore their evening apparel, in part because they were en route to somewhere else, whether relaxing after a party or dining before the opera.