We are on the cusp of the two-hundredth anniversary of the modern restaurant. In these centuries the art of dining has undertaken such complete revolution that it has almost come full circle.
At the start of the 19th century, the world was coming to the end of the feudal age. It’s lingering echo was still evident in the structures of land ownership, food production and suffrage. Yet just another four decades would initiate the demise of the artisan, begin the rise of industry, and cause a rapid centralisation of peoples away from rural towns and towards the great cities. Indeed, the populations of London, Paris, New York, Berlin and Moscow would double in just twenty-five years.
It was this rapid demographic shift, not the peccadilloes of the genteel classes, that gave rise to the modern eatery. Much has been written of the role great chefs like Antonin Careme and Auguste Escoffier played in the rise of fine-dining. It’s true –they and others were central characters. But the great swath of restaurants in which the mass of citizens could afford to dine were not laden with chandeliers or silver cutlery. They were simple places where a basic restorative meal could be procured – in fact it was this restorative character that gave us the name ‘restaurant’.
Many impoverished workers moved to cities for employment, usually to crowded suburbs where they would co-habit small rooms with others, and often in houses without kitchens. As such, restaurants were not a luxury, but a necessity. In consequence, Paris was transformed from a city of 300 restaurants in 1800, to a metropolis of 30,000 eateries in 1850.
But perched above the simple ‘salons a manger’ there were indeed liveried temples of cuisine in which the aristocrats and oligarchs could spend the privilege of their wealth. It was in these fine-diners that a system of service appeared in which the chief waiter (the maitre d’hotel) would prepare courses at the table’s edge from a mixture of fresh ingredients. Omelettes, crepes and salads were central to this new Gueridon style.
In New York City, at the glamorous Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the Gueridon-trained maitre d’ devised a stunning new composed salad featuring apples, celery and walnuts in a light mayonnaise dressing. Once named ‘Salade Oscar’ for the man who concocted it, this dish is now known simply as ‘the Waldorf’.
Ah how times have changed! Once seen as a marker of the highest apogee attainable in dining, the Waldorf has recently been reborn as a bistro favourite. In doing so it has proven that all great dishes must eventually return to their natural home – the mouths of the masses. Vive la revolution!!
Barbecued lamb cutlets with olive Waldorf