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That’s the question recently put to Michael Quinion at World Wide Words. I have to admit that I never really considered this before, though God knows that, prior to my food-writing career, I could never remember to take out that superfluous letter. Whether you care or not, Quinion has the answer. Here’s the short version:

“It didn’t disappear. It was never there in the first place.”

Click on the jump page to read the long answer. It’s worth it…well, if you’re a word geek.

Both words were created in French and later borrowed into English in their French spelling. They derive from the verb “restaurer”, to restore, which has been recorded in the French language since the twelfth century. That developed out of the Latin verb “restaurare”, restore, which is also the source of English “restore”. In French, “restaurant” is just the present participle of “restaurer”, which down the centuries has had various senses, such as reconstituting, repairing, restoring, or fortifying the spirit.

In late medieval times, “restaurant” turned into an adjective and began to refer in particular to a restorative foodstuff, especially soup. By the 1660s it had become a noun meaning a particular type of soup, a bouillon, that was made from concentrated meat juices and which was considered to be quasi-medicinal. A related invalid food in Britain was called beef tea, though in France a restaurant could be made from any meat, indeed usually a mixture of meats. A
dictionary of 1708 broadened it to mean a “food or remedy that has the property of restoring lost strength to a sickly or tired individual”; fifty years later Diderot’s Encyclopedie confirmed “restaurant” was a medical term and gave examples that included brandy and chocolate.

“Restaurateur” is the noun created from the verb “restaurer” by replacing the “-er” ending of the verb with the “-ateur” ending for a man (its female equivalent, “restauratrice”, only appeared in
1767) who carries out the action. Hence, no “n”. At first , he was an artisan who restored or repaired objects. In the seventeenth century, he was an assistant who set broken bones for a surgeon. In the 1770s he became a man skilled in creating this special soup called a restaurant.

The shift to our modern sense began in Paris, around 1765, when fashionable establishments began to open in which you could buy and consume this restorative food. These were at first given the name of restaurateur’s rooms, but “restaurant” was soon adopted as the name for the place where you consumed the soup as well as the soup itself. Such establishments also sold other foodstuffs that were considered healthful.

The change to our modern sense accelerated because of the French Revolution. Chefs and servants thrown out of work because their aristocratic employers had fled or lost their heads turned to running public eating places as a way to make a living. They introduced a style and quality of cooking to the public that had been inaccessible or unknown previously (by all accounts, food in French inns in the eighteenth century had been pretty dire). It’s no coincidence that “gastronomie” (gastronomy, the art and science of delicate eating) is first recorded in French in 1801. Unlike inns, restaurants had fixed prices, individual tables and personal service, and provided alternatives instead of the Hobson’s choiceof the table d’hote of the inns (“menu”, meaning a detailed list,is from French for this reason, first noted in English in ourmodern sense in 1830). They also served meals when you wanted them, not just at set times. No wonder foreigners came to marvel, and tocopy.

“Restaurant” came into English after the Napoleonic Wars ended, to start with in direct reference to its Parisian origins: Grand Hotel de Paris. No 52, Rue de Rivoli, opposite the Tuileries Gardens, Paris. Mme. Damchin has the honour to inform the Public, that she has just furnished this Hotel in the most modern and elegant style; it consists of large and small suits of rooms, with coachhouses, stables, and every convenience. There is an excellent Restaurant in the Hotel. [An advertisement in The Times, 15 Oct. 1822. “Suit” here is correct: it was the usual spelling of “suite” in this sense at the time. “Suit” and “suite” are just variations on the same word.]

It’s all too easy to slip an intrusive “n” into “restaurateur”. As a result, and under the influence of “restaurant”, it’s often spelled “restauranteur”. Examples can be found as far back as the
early 1900s but current informed opinion agrees with the Oxford English Dictionary that it’s “an erroneous form” best avoided. However, it’s becoming more common and may even eventually take over.

Image by Flickr user Global Jet