August 1, 2022

Why Do We Call Dinner Dishes Entrées?

Have you ever wondered why some restaurants call dinner plates ‘entrées?’ What does the word ‘entrée’ even mean? We were wondering about that too, so we decided to look into it, the history of why restaurants in the United States called some dishes entrées, and how common that is. 

What Does ‘Entrée’ Mean?

This may not be surprising, but the word ‘entrée’ is French. What should be surprising, is the fact that it originally had nothing to do with food. It was originally a music term, specifically for a musical or opera. It referred to the opening act and eventually came to be known as the beginning of a multi-course meal. Historians estimate that by 1759, the word was a commonly used term in France when talking about food. 

In the United States, however, dinner is typically a two to three-course meal event. We have appetizers, the dinner entrée, and sometimes dessert. French multi-course meals over 200 years ago could be anywhere from four to six courses. So when the word came to a culture that doesn’t have as many courses, does it make sense for entrées to be the middle course when they used to be the beginning?

Some would argue that it doesn’t. It’s common in the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand to think it’s strange that Americans don’t call the starting course ‘entrées’ when the word originally referred to a beginning. We would argue though that it does with some important context.

The Origin of Entrées in the United States

Michael Witbrock is widely believed to have figured out why entrées mean something different in the United States. Witbrock is a computer scientist who, while he was studying at Carnegie Mellon University, found historical evidence that explained why Americans call the main course an entrée.

He found a French cookbook that was published and widely distributed throughout the United States in 1895. Cookbooks were as popular back then as they are today, serving as a good and fun way to learn recipes to cook. Having one from France makes sense considering the country’s cuisine is famous for its quality.

What he found in the cookbook was a typical French menu that consisted of five to six-course meals. Guess how it ordered them? Soup, hors d’oeuvres, entrées, a roast, final course, and dessert. 

With this course order, there would be two courses in the middle, and as courses got smaller, it’s theorized that the two courses in the middle coalesced into one. The entrée and the roast became synonymous with each other, and since the roast was the main course, the entrée became the main course as well.

Why Do We Not Have Five or Six-Course Meals?

It’s misleading to believe that people were having long multi-course meals back in the 1700s and 1800s. Even in France, where the cookbook originates, it was likely that only the richest were having multi-course meals, and not even every night.

What likely happened was that the popular cookbook was designed to help people cook like they were French nobles. Role-playing is something people have always done, and cookbooks utilize that idea to make a profit. So while some people tried to have French five or six-course meals, it would quickly become untenable and excessive.

Then as the courses went down, the terms combined, and today we have a menu with an entrée section.

Taste the Best Entrées in NEPA at Cork Bar & Restaurant

As Americans, we like to be different from everywhere else, but that’s not always on purpose. In this case, what we call dinner is likely more of a happy accident from the evolution of language. Is that going to stop us from having all the awesome entrées we want? No, it is not.

If you want to taste some of the best that Northeastern Pennsylvania has to offer, make a reservation online to find out.