Just Belly Up To The Counter


Two kinds of fast-food restaurants served the ordinary folks in a Roman city: the kapeleion, from the Greek, a café or tavern, which served cold foods like pastries, fruits, and cheeses and the thermopolium, from the Latin, a cookshop, which offered a much wider fare, including hot foods such as grilled meats.

These thermopolia are hard to miss as they typically have a marble-topped counter opening right onto the sidewalk. Customers belly up to the counter and order, after which they can either stand and eat, find a stool, go to a table, or take the food back to their rooms.


Cooked foods were kept warm in ceramic jars lowered into the circular holes in the storefront counter. Researchers, finding in these jars the remains of duck, goat, pig, fish, and snails, give us an understanding of how varied a diet even the ordinary folks had.

In The Deadliest Hate, Phoebe and Miriam have their first breakfast in Caesarea at Otho’s Thermopolium:

We’d gone hardly a block before succumbing to the aromas of fresh barley rolls and grilled meats wafting out of Otho’s Thermopolium, a modest cookshop on the northeast corner of the intersection. Phoebe went inside to claim a table while I eased in line to place our order at the street-side, marble-topped counter. Tradesmen, laborers, and produce venders still chalky with the dust they’d gathered leading their mule-drawn carts through the countryside to the Northern Gate, jabbered to each other in their spiky dialects as we each waited our turn.

But you won’t have to wait for your breathless adventure in an authentic 2000-year-old setting. Just grab a fresh roll and click here.


[Note: Thanks to my friend, Professor emerita Rosemary Millham, for sharing the research on this thermopolium with me.]