56 Four-Star Dining 1120 LONG AGO, inns sold food and drink to travelers far from their home kitchens. Cookshops offered take-out food, and banquets were showy affairs for special occasions. But nowhere before 1120 is there evidence of what we think of as restaurants, places to purchase a sit-down meal primarily for social and gustatory pleasure.
The journal of 12th century Chinese bureaucrat Meng Yuanlao--arguably the first restaurant reviewer--offers a meticulous account of an emerging restaurant culture in Kaifeng, the capital during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126). The city of one million had plenty of adventurous eaters. Laborers slurped noodles in humble shops, shopkeepers frequented dumpling houses, and according to Meng's journal, begun around 1120, night markets served tripe with blood pasta, fried liver and goose pears to people on the late shift. In Small Sweetwater Alley many establishments specialized in southern Chinese foods, one of the first regional cuisines. The people of Kaifeng also demanded attentive service. "Even the slightest mistake," noted Meng, "was reported to the head of the restaurant, who would curse the waiter or dock his salary or, in extreme cases, drive him from the place."