At restaurants ranging from diners to white-tablecloth fine dining institutions, we’re accustomed to receiving some free bread before our dinner. But here’s a question: Why?
A few reasons have been bandied about, and even many restaurant owners can’t tell you exactly why; it’s just the way it is. Some believe that if customers aren’t immediately fed that they’ll become irate and “hangry,” and start harassing their servers. However, most people are a lot more civilized than that, and aren’t quite at that life-or-death level of hunger whenever they dine. But though the bread may serve as a welcome distraction from waiting for your food to arrive, the real reason restaurants give you free bread is a little more complex.
The earliest restaurants were taverns with a set menu of just one dish, with bread as a part of the meal. But if diners filled up on bread, they’d eat less of the more expensive main dish. As taverns morphed into modern-day restaurants, any attempts to start charging for the bread or stop serving it were resisted by patrons, so they continued to give it away for “free,” but in reality just incorporated the cost into the other items on the menu. The bread is “free” in the same way that there’s no added “rent” fee on the bill; it’s all just covered by the marked-up cost of the food.
“There is a reason we talk about ‘breaking bread’ with someone.
Bread is, and has been, a sign of hospitality like none other. It's not something fancy or expensive but it is a staple. To share it with guests means to welcome them and make them part of your family. When days were bad, bread was what people had. When days were good, bread is what people made every day. This hasn't changed for most parts of the world.
When you enter a good restaurant you are welcome. Yes, there's money changing hands, but you're also a guest and a friend coming in from the street. We welcome you by handing you some bread as it has been custom for millennia.”
So there you have it: That free bread is the restaurant’s way of giving you a hearty welcome; a simple act of generosity. Whether you subconsciously feel compelled to be generous in return by spending more money… well, that’s up to you.