Eat Out this Bastille Day ... It's a Tradition


Mr. Perrottet's new book is Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (HarperCollins), from which the following article is adapted. For a video of his quest for Napoleon’s penis, a relic now owned by a collector in New Jersey, see: Click here for his website.

Many of us will hoist a glass of bubbly and nibble a plate of paté in a Gallic eatery today in a misty-eyed hommage to Bastille Day -- that heart-warming moment in 1789 when a mob stormed a near-empty prison, butchered the warden despite promises of safe passage, then liberated all seven prisoners (four forgers, two lunatics and a sleazy “libertine”).  But few of us realize just how historically appropriate such a ritual really is.  Gourmands may find it hard to believe, but the blood-stained quarter century between that first, confused Bastille Day in 1789 that began the French Revolution and Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo in 1815 was also the inspirational testing ground for one of our most beloved and enduring cultural institutions: the restaurant.

Prior to that time, fine dining was the preserve of the rich, who had their own grand kitchens and personal chefs, and even traveled with them from chateau to chateau.  The only commercial eateries were seedy roadside inns, where travelers would sit with strangers around a mediocre family-style buffet.  Some time in the 1760s, the growing number of middle class Parisians developed a new passion for healthy broths and bouillons, called restaurants or restoratives, and a number of vendors began selling them.  It didn’t take long for the owners to realize that there was a market for more elaborate fare and decor.  By the 1780s, a few more reputable dining halls opened in Paris, where customers could sit at individual tables and even choose from a range of dishes.

But it was the Revolution that provided the breakthrough stimulus for les restaurants (as these endearing new institutions were now generally known) by flooding the working market with unemployed chefs from aristocratic kitchens and filling their wine cellars with excellent bottles sold cheap by fleeing nobles. 

By 1790, there were around fifty restaurants operating in Paris.  Their operations did become a little risky at the height of the Terror in 1794: Widespread food shortages led hungry patriots to sometimes denounce their owners as hoarders and black marketers.  One restauranteur, Jean Francois Véry, was sent to prison because an old sign over his door read in Spanish, “we welcome people of the best sort” – a most undemocratic sentiment.  Another restauranteur, Gabriel Doyen, who had once worked as a chef in Marie Antoinette’s kitchen, could not escape his aristocratic past and ultimately went to the guillotine.   But most restaurants kept up a lively trade, their tables groaning with fine hams, roasts and pâtés.  Patrons also felt relatively safe in restaurants, joking that Robespierre could not afford to send his spies there.

Still, commercial fine dining really came into its own after 1800, when Napoleon seized power as First Consul and his police department issued a statement that, along with freedom of religion and dress, the French could now enjoy “freedom of pleasure.”  Having a good time was every patriot’s duty.  (Napoleon wisely reasoned that citizens who focused on champagne and sauce reductions were probably not conspiring in politics).  In addition, the enlarged French Empire brought fantastic wealth to Paris.  The city was flooded with nouveaux riches who had made their money on the arms market or shady import deals, living like gaudy Russian mafia bosses today.  Restaurants began to compete for customers with lavish marble decor and elaborate live entertainment.  At one establishment, naked women dressed as Amazon warriors were lowered in golden chariots from the ceiling.  These temples of gourmandise became tourist attractions on a par with Notre Dame, and featured in travelogues around Europe.  Less affluent Parisians even enjoyed the occasional splurge, although it became almost common practice to steal knives and forks in order to recoup one’s costs.  A patron at the upmarket eatery Naudet’s was spotted by the waiters and politely given a bill that included “Cutlery, 54 francs.”  He paid up cheerily enough, tut-tutting, “How dear things are getting these days…”

It should be noted that the actual dining experience in these venues was slightly different to a restaurant today.  A customer did not make a reservation; at least, there are no accounts of diners having to wait for a table.  One could choose to sit in the main salon or in one of the cabinets particuliers, private rooms.  Although they were popular amongst locals for romantic trysts, some foreigners simply chose these private rooms out of embarrassment: They had never eaten in public before, and wrote of their discomfort at the prying eyes of strangers; they were even more disturbed to see respectable French women quaffing champagne and admiring themselves in mirrors. Once they were seated, guests were presented with menus the size of newspapers.  Trying to outdo each other in sheer choice, these cartes (literally, maps) were far more encyclopedic than those we have today, commonly offering two dozen types of veal preparation and a range of incomprehensible dishes such as pigeon à la crapaudine.  The truth was, the first menus were more symbolic than practical, a formulaic list of all possible dishes the kitchen could prepare.  The actual dishes on offer each day were far more limited, noted in the margins in handwritten amendments or explained by the waiters – a casual fore-runner of the “specials board” scrawled in chalk by restauranteurs today.

SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Spang, Rebecca, The Invention of the Restaurant, (Harvard, 2000); Trubek, Amy, Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession, (Philadelphia, 2000).


Extracted from Tony Perrottet’s new book Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped (HarperCollins).

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