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, 1842It 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.
The Leisure Hour, 1858
see also D. Rice-Jones in In the Slums - click here