From Ancient Fangzi to Virtual Restaurants: A Brief History of the Restaurant Industry

How the restaurant industry has proven to adapt to our evolving world.


Marcel Heil / Unsplash

Over 10% of the entire workforce in the United States are employed in the restaurant industry, which is one of the largest employers in the private sector, according to the National Restaurant Association. With an estimated 1 million restaurant establishments nationwide, the restaurant business produced $899 billion in sales in 2019. According to recent surveys, the global restaurant business is anticipated to reach a value of over $4.2 trillion by 2027.

The Ancient Origins of Restaurants

The history of the restaurant industry dates back thousands of years, with evidence of the first restaurants appearing in ancient civilizations such as China, Greece, and Rome. In ancient China, restaurants known as “fangzi” (221-206 BCE) were popular among the wealthy and served elaborate meals. In ancient Rome, street vendors known as “thermopolia” (200 BCE – 400 CE) sold hot meals and drinks to customers, a concept that would eventually evolve into the modern restaurant.

However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the modern restaurant industry began to take shape. The French are often credited with pioneering the restaurant concept, with the opening of the first true restaurant in Paris in 1765 by a man named Boulanger. This restaurant, called “La Grande Taverne de Londres,” served individual portions of food to patrons seated at separate tables, a novel concept at the time. Soon, other restaurateurs in France began to emulate this model, and the industry began to flourish.

In the 19th century, the restaurant industry continued to evolve and expand, with restaurants becoming more elaborate and luxurious. Fine dining establishments such as Delmonico’s in New York City and the Ritz Hotel in London, which were known for their high-quality ingredients and exceptional service, catered to the wealthy and famous. On the other end of the spectrum, more casual experiences, such as cafes and diners, emerged to serve the middle class. The 19th century also saw the rise of the modern restaurant kitchen. The invention of new cooking techniques and kitchen equipment such as sous-vide cooking, gas stoves, modern pastry techniques and refrigeration all allowed chefs to prepare more complex and innovative dishes. Classic dishes like the Beef Wellington or Baked Alaska have been made possible due to these rising techniques and innovations.

Fast Food Industry

The invention of the railroad and the rise of tourism in the late 19th century helped to spread the restaurant concept around the world. Restaurants catering to tourists and travelers began to emerge in cities around the globe. The 20th century saw the rise of fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Burger King, which offered quick, convenient meals at low prices. These chains revolutionized the restaurant industry and paved the way for the fast-casual and quick-service restaurants that dominate the industry today.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the fast food industry saw explosive growth with the introduction of drive-through restaurants and iconic food items such as the Big Mac and the Whopper. People wanted meals that were quick and convenient, that they could easily grab and eat on the go.

When you fast forward to today, fast food restaurants still dominate the restaurant industry. They continuously introduce new menu items and brands in order to keep customers interested. However, the health risks associated with fast food have become a concern for many people. As a result, there is now an increasing demand for healthier options. Many fast food chains have responded by offering alternatives alongside their classic menu items. They are also working to provide more transparency about their ingredients and nutritional value to meet the demands of health-conscious customers.

In recent years, the restaurant industry has continued to innovate and expand, with a focus on farm-to-table cuisine, sustainable practices, and innovative new concepts, such as food trucks, pop-up restaurants, and virtual restaurants. The advent of technology has also had a major impact on the restaurant industry, with online ordering and delivery services allowing customers to order food from their favorite restaurants with just a few clicks.

Beyond the Doors

The food delivery industry emerged as a new branch in the restaurant industry, which has now grown to a net worth of over 150 billion dollars. 

Delivery services found their swift start in a high demand setting during the television era in the 1950s. Many restaurants were adapting to the gradual shift towards more sedentary lifestyles as more people worked from home, cars became widespread, and televisions found a permanent placement in homes. Hence, it would only be a matter of time before the restaurant industry was able to capitalize on this situation and institute “television dinner” menus. In the 1950s, TV dinners typically consisted of a pre-cooked meal, such as meat or poultry, a vegetable, and a starchy side, such as potatoes or rice, packaged in an aluminum tray divided into sections to hold each component of the meal.

Residents of local areas no longer needed to live within walking distance of their favorite restaurant. Through a short call, their favorite meal would be delivered to their doorstep in the next hour. In the next decades, this process would only expand throughout the industry and be improved upon – which can mainly be attributed to the ubiquity of cars. 

In 1984, the international pizza chain Domino’s introduced their own spin on food delivery. The heavier focus on the food delivery aspect of restaurant chains allowed a “30 minutes or free” policy to be put in place that would give free food to the customer if Domino’s could not meet the time deadline given. 

Evolution of Food Delivery Services

In 1995, the first prototype of an online delivery service found its humble beginnings in the Stanford University Business School by two graduates, Craig Cohen and Michael Adelburg. The World Wide Waiter, the company that the graduates engineered, would end up offering meal options from 60 partnered, local restaurants. Today, they’ve expanded to more than 1,300 restaurants and have rebranded to the new name:

With the new century, came new avenues for the food delivery industry in which to expand.  Starting in the 2000s, the popularity of the food delivery services exponentially increased. Smartphones started to appear as a necessity on everyone’s person. This also gave a pathway for delivery apps like Grubhub, DoorDash, and UberEats (to name a few) to dominate the delivery industry space. Now instead of from one’s home, it gradually became the norm to even order food from a workplace or office as the ability to deliver food became more convenient and acceptable.

The 2010s and onwards also introduced a different variant of food delivery under the name of meal kits. These meal kits would consist of a meal plan that would last for a week with premade food that would be prepared by the customer at home. This new branch of food delivery services found a common middle ground of brave individuals who wanted to venture into the world of cooking at home, but didn’t feel comfortable finding their own ingredients while grocery shopping.

Food delivery services became especially critical throughout the grueling duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic placed a large roadblock on the restaurant industry as a whole, due to the fact that the key aspect of dining-in and customer-staff interaction were completely stopped or largely curtailed during the first months of the pandemic. However, as a way around this, delivery services created a bridge for the food between one’s home and the restaurant. Through this relation between third party delivery services and restaurants, some restaurants were able to stay afloat in the course of these trying times.

Despite challenges such as changing consumer preferences, labor shortages, and rising food costs, the restaurant industry continues to thrive and evolve, with new concepts and trends emerging all the time. Today, the restaurant industry is a major global economic force, generating billions of dollars in revenue each year and providing employment to millions of people around the world. From fine dining establishments to fast food chains to food trucks and beyond, the restaurant industry offers something for everyone and continues to shape the ways that we eat and socialize.

However, it wasn’t until the 18th century that the modern restaurant industry began to take shape. The French are often credited with pioneering the restaurant concept, with the opening of the first true restaurant in Paris in 1765 by a man named Boulanger.