Victorian London - Food and Drink - Restaurants - Eating-houses

There are, it appears, about two hundred places in London which can fittingly come under the denomination of eating-houses, occupying a place between the hotels on the one hand and the coffee-rooms on the other. At all of these places joints of meat are dressed every day, depending for variety on the extent of business done, but generally including boiled beef and roast beef, as well as the necessary appendages for the formation of a dinner. In some of these houses the quantity of meat dressed in a week is quite enormous; and it seems pretty evident that the greater the sale the better the quality of the articles sold - or perhaps we may take it in an inverse order, that the excellence of the provisions has led to the extent of the custom.
    Some of these dining-rooms are the scenes of bustle during only a few hours of the day; while others, either from the extent of their trade, or the different classes of their visitors, present a never- ceasing picture of eating and drinking. Some, such as a celebrated house in Bishopsgate Street, are frequented almost entirely by commercial men and City clerks, who, during a few hours in the day, flock in by hundreds. Then again others, such as Williams's boiled-beef shop in the Old Bailey, and a few in the neighbourhood of Lincoln's Inn Fields, are frequented almost entirely by lawyers' clerks, witnesses, and others engaged in the law or criminal courts. In all such cases there is a best' room for those whose purses are tolerably supplied; and a more humble room, generally nearer to the street, for such as can afford only a 'sixpenny plate.' Again, on going farther westward, we find, in the neighbourhood of Covent Garden and the Haymarket, dining-rooms in great plenty, the visitants at which are altogether of a different class. Here we may see actors, artists, paragraph-makers, and foreigners, most of whom seem in much less haste than the City diners. In this quarter of the town there are many French restaurateurs, whose rooms present the agreeable variety of ladies dining without any restraint from the observation of the male visitors.
    It is observable that in some houses the waiter gives the diner a long detail of the good things which are 'just ready,' while in others there is a printed bill-of-fare placed before him. The latter is certainly the most systematic method; for, by the time the nimble waiter has got through his speech, we almost forget the first items to which he directed attention. In the 'bill of fare' all the dishes customarily prepared at the house are printed in certain groups, and the prices are written opposite those which are to be had hot on any particular day, so that a customer can at once see what provisions are ready, and how much he shall have to pay for them. In the opposite case, where the visitor knows nothing of the matter but what the waiter tells him, the routine of proceedings may be thus sketched: - The guest, perhaps a man of business who has but little time to spare for his dinner, enters the room, takes the first seat he can find (the one nearest the fire in cold weather), takes off his hat, and asks for The Times or the Chronicle. While he is glancing his eye rapidly over the daily news, the active, tidy waiter, with a clean napkin on his left arm, comes to his side, and pours into his ear, in a rapid but monotonous tone, some such narrative, as the following: - 'Roast beef, boiled beef, roast haunch of mutton, .boiled pork, roast veal and ham, salmon and shrimp-sauce, pigeon-pie, rump-steak pudding.' The visitor is perhaps deep in the perusal of 'Spanish Scrip' or 'Columbian Bonds,' or some other newspaper intelligence, and the waiter is obliged to repeat his catalogue; but, generally speaking, the order is quickly given, and quickly attended to. A plate of roast beef, which may be taken as a standard of comparison, is charged for at these places at prices varying from 4d. to 10d., generally from 6d. to 8d.; and other articles are in a corresponding ratio. When the meat and vegetables have disappeared, the nimble waiter is at your elbow, to ask whether pastry or cheese is wanted; and when the visitor is about to depart, the waiter adds up, with characteristic rapidity, the various items constituting the bill. 'Meat 8d., potatoes 1d., bread 1d., cheese 1d., &c.,' are soon summed up; the money is paid, and the diner departs.
    At the alamode-beef houses the routine is still more rapid. Here a visitor takes his seat, and the waiter places before him a knife, a fork, and a spoon; and gives him the choice among sundry lumps of bread kept in an open basket. Meanwhile the visitor asks for a 'sixpenny plate'; and it may happen that two other customers ask at the same time, the one for a sixpenny, and the other for a four- penny plate. Out goes the waiter, calling, in a quick tone, for 'two sixes and a four'; a brevity which is perfectly well understood by those who are to lade out the soup from the cauldron wherein it is prepared. Presently he returns with a pile of pewter plates, containing the 'two sixes and a four,' and places them before the diners. There is a house near the theatres where this scene of operation continues almost uninterruptedly from twelve o'clock at noon till an hour or two after the theatres are over in the evening; some taking soup as a luncheon, some as an early dinner, some as a late dinner, some as a substitute for tea, and the remainder as a supper.
    There is a lower class of soup-houses, where persons to whom sixpence is even too much for a dinner may obtain wherewithal to dine. Whoever has had to walk through Broad Street, St. Giles's, or down the northern side of Holborn Hill, may have seen shops, in the windows of which a goodly array of blue and white basins is displayed, and from which emanate abundant clouds of odour- giving steam. Around the windows, too, a crowd of hungry mortals assemble on a cold day, and partake (in imagination) of the enticing things within. A poor fellow, all in tatters, with a countenance which speaks strongly of privation, gazes eagerly through the window at what is going on within, and thinks how rich a man must be who can afford to pay twopence or threepence for 'a basin of prime soup, potatoes, and a slice of bread'; - for it is at some such charge as this that the viands are sold. As for the quality of the soup, we should, perhaps, only be just in supposing that it is good enough for the price. One thing is certain, that the quantity sold every day at these houses is extremely large.
    The 'chop-houses' in the City form a class by themselves. They are neither eating-houses nor taverns, nor do they belong to classes hereafter to be noticed. The solid food here to be procured is chiefly in the form of a steak or a chop, with such small appendages as are necessary to form a meal. There is no hot joint from which a guest may have a 'sixpenny' or a 'ninepenny' plate; nor are there the various dishes which fill up the bill-of-fare at a dining- room. Every guest knows perfectly well what he can procure there. If a chop or a steak will suffice, he can obtain it; if not, he goes to some house where greater variety is provided. With his chop he can have such liquor as his taste may prefer. There are some of these houses which have been attended by one generation after another of guests, comprising merchants, bankers, and commercial men of every grade. The portrait of the founder, or a favourite waiter, may perhaps be seen over the fireplace in the best room; and the well- rubbed tables, chairs, and benches tell of industry oft repeated. Sometimes the older houses exhibit a waiter who has gone through his daily routine for half a century. There is a dingy house in a court in Fleet Street where the chops and steaks are unrivalled. Who that has tasted there that impossible thing of private cookery - a hot mutton chop, a second brought when the first is despatched - has not pleasant recollections of the never-ending call to the cook of 'Two muttons to follow'?
    At most of the respectable eating and chop houses it is a pretty general custom to give a penny or twopence to the waiter when the reckoning' is paid. This is a bad system. It would be much better to pay an extra penny for the price of the dinner, and let the waiter be paid by the master; instead of, as is at present the case, the waiter giving the master a douceur for permission to hold the situation. But whether such a change would change the characteristics of a waiter, we cannot say; certain it is that a London waiter is quite a character. Here is Mr. Leigh Hunt's picture of one: - He has no feeling of noise, but as the sound of dining, or of silence, but as a thing before dinner. Even a loaf with him is hardly a loaf: it is so many "breads." His longest speech is the making out of a bill viva voce - 'Two beefs - one potatoes - three ales - two wines - six and twopence, - which he does with an indifferent celerity, amusing to new comers who have been relishing their fare, and not considering it as a mere set of items.'
    Many houses have what is termed in France a table-d'hôte, or in England an ordinary; that is, a dinner ready for all corners at a fixed hour in the day, and at a fixed charge. The host determines on the choice of good things to constitute the bill of fare; and the diner partakes of such as may best accord with his palate. Some of these places are attended day after day by nearly the same persons, while others see a constant succession of new faces. There is one such house near or in Billingsgate, celebrated for the excellence of the fish, which forms a component part of the cheer; and which is, on this account, much frequented by the connoisseurs in fish. Nay, we have heard that so far does the demand for table-room exceed the supply, that the knowing ones' have their seat at the table half an hour before the prescribed dinner-time, as the only way to be prepared for the fish by the time the fish is prepared for them. A public-house (really one) in a street near Covent Garden has an ordinary of three courses, which the lovers of economical good cooking, who cannot dine without fish and pastry, delight to haunt. But there are few of these. The ordinaries of the days of Elizabeth have left few successors.
    Besides the dining-rooms and chop-houses, properly so called, there are many places where a man can get a dinner by a sort of indirect arrangement. Not to mention oyster-rooms, which are frequented rather for suppers than dinners, or pastry-cooks' shops, which are rather for lady-like delicacies than for stout, hearty food which will enable a man to buffet through the world, or Garraway's, and one or two similar houses, where a sandwich and a glass of wine or ale may be rapidly swallowed, there are public-houses where a gridiron is kept always at hand for cooking a steak or a chop belonging to a customer. If we draw a circle of a few hundred yards radius round the Royal Exchange, we shall find more than one place of which the following is a sketch. A butcher's shop within a door or two of a public-house supplies a purchaser with a steak or a chop at a reasonable price. He carries it into the public-house (or tavern, if the name be preferred) and places it in the hands of a waiter or servant, who speedily dresses it on an enormous gridiron, the bars of which are so constructed as to save a great portion of the fat from the meat. For this service the small sum of one penny only is charged, in addition to an equally moderate charge for bread, potatoes, and whatever drink may be called for.
    Some of these houses are celebrated for the 'fine old cheese,' or the 'baked potatoes,' or the 'mutton pies,' which they provide for their customers; each place having a reputation for some one or other welcome dish. In humble neighbourhoods, again, all such dainties as 'sheeps' trotters,' 'sheeps' heads,' 'pigs' faces,' 'faggots,' &c., are to be had hot at certain hours of the day; but these are not supplied by the owners of public-houses; they are procured at shops adjacent, and very often demolished in the tap-rooms of the public-houses. 

Charles Knight, Knight's London, 1842

It is evening, and the grey twilight is hovering over the busy streets. The city of London has had its dinner, and having, for the most part, transacted their affairs for the day, its men of business have nearly vanished from the scene — gone in all directions, some to their comfortable villas in the suburbs, north, south, and west, and some by rail to Croydon, Reigate, or uttermost Brighton. The grand army of clerks, dismissed hours ago to enjoy their temporary furlough, have trudged or "bussed" it home to their families; and now there is a comparative solitude in that wide area fronting the Exchange; Cheapside mitigates its myriad march, aud Cornhill takes breath, after the moil and tussle which lasted almost from dawn to sundown. Let us turn out of the main route, down this quiet flag-paved court—quiet now, but which a few hours ago echoed with the ceaseless hum of voices and. the tread of hurrying feet. Yonder is the dining-house, at whose interior, with the permission of our friend the proprietor, we are going to take a glance. A waiter, after his warm day's work, is standing, aproned, at the door, to catch a mouthful of air, and just a glimpse of a few pale stars struggling forth in the deepening blue of the sky.
    "Is Mr. — within?"
    Mr.— steps forward at the sound of our voice, with an answering word of welcome.
    "A busy day to-day?" we ask.
    "Rather—nothing extraordinary ; about six hundred dinners, and the usual bar practice."
    "You have considerable standing at the bar, I believe?"
    "Yes; no sitting allowed. Out benchers don't come to the bar at all, you understand. The bar lunches—the bench dines. Come this way, I will show you where."
    Passing the bar, a plain polished slab, flanked by regiments of bottles and decanters and flies of glasses of ail shapes, we enter the lower dining-room, a capacious chamber, decorated in a style rather solid and substantial than attractively ornate. The tables, of dark mahogany on bronze importers, are parallelograms, projecting endways from the wall, and over them are brass rails and supports for the reception of hats, overcoats, and umbrellas. The benehes are nothing less than a series of well-padded easy chairs, constructed on the true accommodation principle of allowing to each diner his fair two and twenty inches, or thereabouts, of sitting-room, on which his neighbours on each side are prevented from encroaching by the stout supports for the elbows, which shut him in. With all this liberal space, the room will hold, and does hold daily, and several times a-day, about a hundred diners at once. Our friend tells us that he takes in few newspapers or literary attractions of any kind. The attraction of his house, on which he relies, is a good dinner at a moderate cost, served on the instant; and he confesses, without hesitation or reserve, that when he has seen a customer's money he is glad to see his back as soon as possible. This is as it should be. Men, whose time is money, whose very minutes are sometimes rateable at a golden value, do not come here to read. They call for their dinners— they dine, as deliberately as they choose; but, having dmed, they pay their reckoning and depart. Loungers, gossippers, disputants, newsmongers, and men with nothing to do, do not come here—or if they do, they soon find that the atmosphere of the price does not suit them, and they seek a congenial resort elsewhere.
    From the lower room we mount into the upper, noting as we go that the staircase is plated, so to speak, with a thick ribbed coating of leaden mail, which is found to be the only kind of stair-carpet which will stand the everlasting wear and tear of commercial feet. The upper room is furnished in a similar manner to the lower one as to accommodations, but in a superior style of ornament; the walls are divided into panels, in which are groups of flowers brilliantly executed, and a tracery of flowers winds round the painted pillars that divide the panelling. The gaselier is of the last new design, and the padded seats appear to be covered with morocco leather. This room will dine even a larger number than the one below, and with the same individual allowance of space. The dining, our friend tells us, begins at one o'clock, is at flood tide about three, languishes and ebbs at half-past four, and finishes before six, save on rare occasions.
    We now follow our friend to the kitchen, which is on the basement floor. It is a large airy apartment, lighted with gas, and fitted up in the regular English style, differing nothing from the ordinary kitchen of a gentleman's house, save in the multiplied appliances for doing the same thing ten times over at one and the same time. Thus, the range is large and deep enough to accommodate half a dozen spits, and the spits are long enough to contain three or four joints each. Then, for boiling, steaming, grilling, frying, stewing, there are a number of boilers, pans, grills, and circular orifices in what looks like a stone sideboard, underlaid with fires and furnaces—to say nothing of ovens for baking, and warming, and the usual culinary etceteras. The cooking being over tor the day, the kitchen is clean as a new pin; and the only vestige or symptom of anything eatable at all is a sleepy turtle lying on the stones in one corner, w here he slowly blinks his sad eyes as he peeps from under his shell, awaiting his turn for decapitation and evisceration. Our friend has periodical turtle-soup days, well known to the diners on 'Change. One of them comes off on Friday next, and then—good-bye to poor turtle.
   From the kitchen we descend into the cellar, lying at considerable depth beneath. There we have an imitation in miniature of the huge winevaults in the London docks. There is the same black, dusty drapery of cobwebs pendant from the ceiling, the accumulation, probably, of more than a century ; there is the same darkness and vinous odour, and the same moderate temperature. The chief difference is, that instead of interminable perspectives of casks, we have here interminable rows of bottles ranged on shelves, heels outwards, and swathed in the dust of more than one generation. The bottles are in a large variety of shapes—some with long, crane-like necks, others with barely neck enough for the cork; some large enough to hold an imperial quart, and others only professing to contain half-a-pint, and that only the conventional measure. The mass, however, are the familiar wine-bottle ; but this is as various in value as the others are in form: there are new wines from the wood, and old and sea-borne wines, which have not moved from the position they occupy since Victoria ascended the throne. Wines, especially wines in bottle, require careful looking after; they must not be exposed to the great heats of summer or the frosts of winter, or they would lose in flavour, and therefore in value. Our friend shows us the contrivance by which he can keep them at a nearly uniform temperature of about sixty degrees, all the year through. This he does by an ingenious ventilating apparatus, with which he can admit either warm or cold air at pleasure. Looking to the myriads of bottles displayed here, we have an idea that the consumption annually must be no trifle; and as we pass out we note, in an adjoining cellar, that the process of bottling from the pipe is going on, to supply the deficiencies that so regularly occur.
    Ascending from the cellar, our friend invites us to look at his larder. This also is no trifle. The larder is in the open air, and is in fact a small inclosed court in the rear of the house, roofed in only in part, like the stalls in Leadenhall market, and very like a miniature market in looks. There is the green-grocer's stall, with every variety of culinary vegetable, to the amount of something like a wagon-load; there is the poulterer's stall, with twexnty geese and as many turkeys all of a row, with no stint of fowls and game of all kinds; there is the butcher's stall, with thirty legs of mutton, half as many haunches, huge sirloins, barons, and buttocks of beef, and pork ad infinitum ; there are horns from Westphalia, bacon from Wiltshire, and sausages from Norfolk in piles. Then there is the baker's stall, with bread in all shapes, and store of flour for puddings and pies—not to insist upon a whole cargo of preserves and fruits in and out of season, and delicacies of various kinds for the dessert. Who would not like the run of such a larder as that?
    We have seen all now, and are ready to take our leave; but our friend does not allow visitors to his cellar to depart without tasting its contents. A bottle of that beeswing port, of some famous vintage whose precise date we forget, has been sent upstairs, and we are expected to take a glass or two.
    Pending this welcome refreshment after a rather toilsome day, we put one or two questions to our host
    "What do you do with the broken and refuse viands, which must unavoidably be left on your hands after six hundred people have been dining here, and with the numerous joints, which you cannot denude to the bone in serving your customers ?"
    " It is all given away," he replies; " a number of poor persons come for it every evening; we have no difficulty in getting rid of it, I assure you. It forms the chief support of several needy families, and they are grateful for it."
    We note this as an interesting fact, and cannot help wondering whether the same rule is at all general throughout London. If so, it forms a remarkable contrast to the practice which prevails universally in Paris, where the refuse of the higher class estaminets and restaurants is sold for its full value to those of a lower grade, who in turn sell their refuse to a grade lower still.
    "But," we resume, " we saw in your larder a huge tub full of fragments ef meat and vegetables. Why was that not fetched away with the rest?"
   "That is for to-morrow's soup."
    "To-morrow's soup! why, to-morrow is Sunday. You don't open your house on Sunday!"
   "No, but I make soup every Sunday morning, or rather it makes itself during the night. You see, this is a little work of charity which I have thought it my duty to look after. There is a wretched district down in Westminster, where the people are starving, body and soul. I used to go and speak to them of a Sunday morning before service time, in the hope of doing them some good, if it might be. But I found it a sad one-sided business, that of speaking of the state of their souls to people whose bodies were starving for want of food. So I hit upon this soup plan. I make some gallons of wholesome stuff, which costs me no great deal beyond the trouble. I have it served up hot to as many as choose to come on the Sunday morning early, and while they are eating it I read a chapter or two in the Bible, and after they have had their breakfast I can talk to them and pray with them a bit, with a little better face and more satisfaction to myself and them too, than I could when they were too hungry to think of anything else. I suspect my plan is vulnerable to objectors, but, notwithstanding that, I think it works well on tx`he whole; at any rate, the hungry are fed."
    We, who know by experience that the hungry stomach has the deafest of ears, make no objection to the plan. We rise and shake hands with our host, and depart, not without a notion that we have made more discoveries in the old dining-house than we had anticipated.

The Leisure Hour, 1858

see also D. Rice-Jones in In the Slums - click here