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Restaurants always change with the times

“Today dining out is seen as an indulgence,” says The Economist, but for most of human history it was “the cheapest way to eat”. There were 158 “snack bars” in Pompeii – one for every 60-100 people – and Londoners could buy ready-cooked meat, game and fish from at least the 1170s. These establishments were like takeaways and were generally aimed at the poor, who couldn’t afford the wood needed to cook food at home. Restaurants only started becoming respectable in the 18th century, when the elite stopped seeing public spaces as “dirty and dangerous”. Out went set menus and shared tables; in came private booths and à la carte.

Dining out has become progressively more expensive: “In America in 1930 a restaurant meal was 25% costlier than an equivalent meal at home, but by 2014 the gap had risen to 280%.” The demand is still there. “Historically, poor people have tended to work longer hours than rich ones. But in the latter half of the 20th century the opposite became true.” Globalisation’s well-paid winners, toiling through the night, are the ones with the least time to cook food, and they have the cash to pay steep restaurant bills. Now, with Covid spurring a rise in takeaways, restaurants need to double down on “offering those who need to eat a taste of romance, glamour and love”.

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