Victorian London - Food and Drink - Fast Food and Food sold on streets - 'London's Light Refreshments'



A Well-known Confectioner's Shop (Piccadilly)



LONDONERS of all classes have frequently need of light refreshment, and as demand invariably creates supply, caterers are to be found in every quarter of the Metropolis who have made this special need their study. The restaurants, the taverns, the wine bars, the refreshment counters, and the great tea shops have been dealt with in their place - that place is entirely outside the sort of light refreshment that I am dealing with now.
    The fashionable lady out for an afternoon walk, her suburban sister up for an afternoon's shopping, frequently patronise the confectioner and find in his well-appointed establishment a little table at which they can eat either a dainty "French" creation (it is more generally German) or the more homely bun or scone. There are pretty and artistically decorated tea-rooms attached to high class chocolate and bon-bon shops to which elegantly-dressed ladies repair for tea, coffee and cream, and ices, and the homelier pastry- cook has long since learned the advantage of marble-topped little tables and the legend, "Five o'clock tea."
    Everybody does not want to take life from the bustling, crowded point of view, and London is full of quiet, well-appointed refreshment houses, catering only for a limited number of guests, who like to be leisurely and peaceful while they are eating and drinking. For this class of customers the great popular establishments have no charm.
    The standard temperance "drinks" of London are lemonade, ginger beer, and ginger ale. The fruit syrup of France is a [-50-] rarity, even at the West-End, and is by no means in daily demand even at the cafés run on Continental lines.
"An appetising display" (Coffee Bar)    For lemonade or ginger beer the wealthier thirster goes to the confectioner, especially when children are of the party. At one time the chemist did a certain amount of business in aerated waters "to be drunk on the premises," but now the preparers of prescriptions and vendors of drugs play a very small part as caterers, though many who have in the summer months established ice-cream soda-fountains on the American principle supply other cooling beverages.
    It is during a heat wave that the ice-cream soda-fountain establishment does a roaring trade. For this form of light refreshment a perspiring panama-hatted crowd may frequently be seen waiting on the pavement without when the shop itself is full.
    It is in the summer that the fruiterer occasionally enters the lists, and the legend "strawberries and cream" is inscribed outsde the windows of shops where during the rest of the year they give you what you need in a brown paper bag or a basket, and expect you to take it off the premises for consumption. Brandy cherries are a form of light refreshment of long standing, actually as well as figuratively. Ever since I can remember, a peculiar-shaped glass jar of cherries in liquor has been the centre ornament of certain confectioners' counters.
Oysters    Port and sherry decanted and labelled are to be seen in most confectioners' shops where they serve soup, jelly in glasses, and sandwiches, and occasionally-very occasionally-hot meat patties. In some the wine licence is taken advantage of to keep a bottle of champagne on an instrument which allows it to be drawn off through a tap a glass at a time.
    Curds and whey are a form of light refreshment commonly associated with cool, clean, and delightful dairies. There is generally the model of a cow in the front window, and sometimes another on the counter. Where curds and whey are sold there is also frequently a trade done in glasses of new milk and milk and soda. Some of the dairies which still offer this pastoral menu to the jaded Londoner keep on the counter [-51-] under a glass cover small spongy cakes with currants in them, which are a compromise in shape between the "heart" and the "club" as represented by the playing card artist.
    Sweets are hardily light refreshment, because they are not taken either to quench thirst or to allay hunger, and their refreshing qualities, unless you have a tickling in the throat, are not appreciable. But the sweet-stuff shop does supply light refreshment occasionally in the shape of hot fruit drinks, which are exceedingly popular with small boys in the winter evenings. There is a peripatetic sweet-vendor, a darkey, who does a good trade in candy amongst folk waiting for admission at the theatre doors.
    It is in the evening that the fried fish and potato "chip" shop, the ham and beef shop, and the cookshop, whose specialities are the hot sausage and the cooked onion and mashed potato, do a busy trade. Before the windows of these establishments there is generally a small crowd, not necessarily hungry, but interested. You may see among them well dressed amid well-to-do people. For to watch the savoury sausage sizzle, and the odoriferous onion ooze its oiliness in the pan laid over a gas arrangement, is a delight to most of us. Pork chops and tomatoes have frequently cooking pans of their own in these shop windows, but I hesitate to include a pork chop in a catalogue of light refreshments.
Olives and Gherkins / Hot Drinks    The eel-pie shop is not as fascinating, but is almost as well patronised. The dressing of an eel-pie shop window is conservative. It is a tradition handed down through many generations to the present day. The eels are shown artistically in lengths on a bed of parsley which is spread over a dish. On either side of the eels cold pies in their pans are laid in tempting profusion but in perfect order. The eel-pie shop varies its menu. You may procure at the same establishment cranberry tarts, and at some of them apple tarts ; also meat pies and meat puddings, and at the Christmas season mince pies.
    To see the eel-pie business at its best, to appreciate its poetry, you must watch the process of serving its customers. Behind the counter on a busy night stands the proprietor in his shirt sleeves, a clean white apron preserving his waistcoat amid nether garments from damage. Observe with what nimble deftness he lifts the lid of the metal receptacle in front of him, whips out a hot pie, runs a knife round it inside the dish, and turns it out on to a piece of paper for the customer - possibly into the eager outstretched hand.
    He is generally assisted by his wife and daughter, who are almost but not equally, dexterous. There are metal receptacles in front of them also, and the pies are whipped out in such rapid succession that your eyes become dazzled by the quick continuous movement. If you watch long enough it will almost appear to you that a shower of hot pies is being flung up from below by an invisible agency.
Baked Potatoes    [-52-] The oyster shop is not as common as it was in the clays when natives were sixpence a dozen. But there are many scattered about London still. The great oyster rooms are at the west. At one you can have fish in every variety, and lobster salad and dressed crabs are a specialty. There is one famous establishment near Regent Street whose oysters and fish sandwiches attract the highest in the land. Here during the afternoon one may see a Field-Marshal and a Cabinet Minister, an ambassador and a Duke, taking their "half-dozen" side by side. But the ordinary oyster shop makes a specialty of the Anglo-Dutch and other varieties which can be sold at a moderate rate. The arrangement of the window of the ordinary London oyster shop is of the aquarium order. Many exhibit a large specimen of the shell which we used to put to our ears as children in order to hear the ocean roar. Some shade the window light with a brilliant green globe, others prefer a pink effect. Seaweed is occasionally used to decorate a hearthstone-coloured combination which is supposed to represent the bed of the ocean.
Baked Chestnuts    The trade in light refreshments which is left in the hands of the kerbstone purveyor is not so great as it used to be, except perhaps in the east and south of London and certain Saturday-night thoroughfares. The oyster stalls are few and far between, and the whelk stall has of late shown a modest retirement in the west. The old lady with a basket in which trotters are laid out on a clean white cloth may still be found at certain corners, but she belongs to a rapidly disappearing body of street caterers. The trotter woman's peculiar cry is getting as rare as the muffin man's bell, and the "Fine Storbries" of the hawker who, basket on head, was wont, especially on Sunday afternoons, to wake the echoes of quiet streets with his trade announcement.
    The cookshop which does a roaring trade in the daytime has no place here, because it supplies the solid meal of most of its customers. In the same category are the vegetarian restaurants, now liberally patronised by ladies and gentlemen who abjure a flesh diet; but the foreign shops which are half in the ham and beef line and half in the tinned provision trade are doing a big light refreshment business all day long. At the counter where "Delicatessen" are purveyed you may buy and eat your sandwich, and have it made of un-English ingredients - sardines, German, French, and Italian sausage, smoked salmon, occasionally even of caviare. These establishments have generally a refreshment room upstairs, where you may have coffee, chocolate and cakes, or sweet and savoury snacks. Here you may even purchase the herring salad clear to the sons of the Fatherland, and eat it while you wait or take it home in a paper bag.
    All these forms of light refreshment are to be found in the west. Let us wend our way [-53-] east, and study the crowded menus of, say, Mile End Road.
    This seems to be a neighbourhood where light refreshment is a leading industry. Not only do the stalls on the kerbstone offer the passer-by delicacies of various descriptions, but in main thoroughfare and side street alike you find shop after shop catering for the appetite that requires "a small contribution." Here is a pastrycook's with a side room packed with young people, mostly of the Hebrew race, who are taking coffee and cakes. Here is a cookshop in which white-shirt-sleeved assistants are continually attacking "spotted dogs" and "curranty " rolls with a knife, and deftly turning the slice into a piece of paper for the hand stretched out to secure it. A favourite "dish" at these establishments is a kind of batter pudding. When you have your penny slice of this in a piece of paper the assistant pours over it a spoonful of the gravy in which the remains of a loin of pork are standing. Why the gravy does not run over on to the floor I cannot say. I only know that it does not. When the batter pudding client comes out into the street with his light refreshment in his hand and commences to eat it the gravy is there still.

Iced Lemonade

    The fried fish shop of the east is very like the fried fish shop of the west, but in the matter of "chips" there is a slight difference. It is in the vinegar bottle. It may be the desire of the East-Ender to get more for his money, but this I know, that where the West-End "chipper" is contented just to sprinkle his or her pennyworth, the East-End "chipper" shakes the bottle for a good two minutes in order to get a grand result. Salt for fish and chips or batter pudding you take with your finger and thumb from a big salt box on the counter, and you bring the salt out with you and do your seasoning in the street.
    Down the little dark side streets around Whitechapel and Spitalfields you will find curious little shops that deal principally in olives and gherkins in salt and water. The latter are exposed in big tubs, and are often bought and eaten without ceremony on the spot. For the Russians and Roumanian Jews there are special light refreshments provided in the shops that have their fronts ornamented with Hebrew characters. There are even small refreshment counters and little coffee shops in which the menu is entirely in Yiddish.
    [-54-] The larger Hebrew population is responsible for the fact that many beef and ham shops are beef shops only, or substitute the huge German sausage for the familiar ham of the Gentile establishment.
    The pie shops here offer you a more varied choice than at the west. In them you can buy hot beef-steak pies and puddings, eel, kidney, meat, fruit, and mince pies. There is also in Mile End Road an establishment which is famous for miles around for its baked sheeps' hearts, and another which has a reputation for tripe and onions that extends beyond the tramway system.
    The stall catering of this district is extensive and peculiar. here in all its glory the eel-jelly trade is carried on. In great white basins you see a savoury mess. Behind the stall mother and father, sometimes assisted by son and daughter, wash up cups and spoons, and ladle out the local luxury to a continuous stream of customers. Many a time on a terribly cold night have I watched a shivering, emaciated-looking man eagerly consuming his cup of eel -jelly, and only parting with the spoon and crockery when even the tongue of a dog could not have extracted another drop from either.

Railway Buffet

    The shell-fish stalls are larger and more commodious than they are in the west. Under the flaring naphtha lights are set out scores of little saucers containing whelks, cockles, and mussels "a penny a plate." Oysters at these stalls are sold at sixpence a dozen. The trade, even at that price, is not large. 
    Hot green peas are served in teacups at some outdoor establish merits. The peculiarity of this form of light refreshment is the prodigality of the customers in the matter of vinegar and pepper. which are à discretion and gratis. And in the east you may also purchase peanuts fresh roasted while you wait. The hot apple fritter is now, too, a street stall luxury.
    The hot fruit drink is a favourite light refreshment in the East-End, where a large number of the Hebrew immigrants have [-55-] no taste for the more potent beverages of the gin palace and the tavern. Everywhere you will see little shops with windows removed and counters open to the street. These establishments may include some other business, perhaps cigars or sweets or newspapers or general items, but the trade on which they rely is the hot temperance beverage.
Sarsaparilla    This business is also carried on by many stall-holders and on bitter winter nights the proprietor has all his work to do keep the boys who have no money to spend from warming themselves gratis at the pan of burning coke on which he keeps his kettle boiling.
    The baked potato can is in evidence east and west during the winter months, and a "nice floury tater" is a favourite form of light refreshment with the poor. To many a poor fellow it is the evening meal. West End youngsters have been known to purchase a baked potato in lightness of heart and to consume it "on the premises." But as a rule they refuse the peripatetic vendor's polite offer of a dab of yellow grease which he euphemistically terms butter.
    In the East-End the baked chestnut stand has its appointed place. Many roast chestnut vendors, with a bitter knowledge of the vagaries of the English climate, wheel out on Saturday afternoons prepared for meteorological eccentricities. They divide their establishment on wheels into two distinct departments, and offer you at the same time baked chestnuts and ices.
    The cry of the hokey-pokey merchant is not so familiar as it used to be. "Hokey Pokey " was the Englishing of "ecco uno poco"- "here is a little." The London boy found that the ice done up in white paper was too little. He preferred his "gelata" in a glass which he could hold in his hand and lick at his leisure while leaning in an easy attitude against the Italian merchant's gaily painted barrow.
Peanuts    In hot weather there are two temperance drink vendors who are well known in the City and who drive a big trade during the dinner-hour. These are the man with "the yellow lemonade" in a big glass bottle, with the real lemon doing duty as a cork, and the sherbet vendor. An entirely new form of liquid refreshment for small boys has come into vogue during recent years. It is the liquor left in the preserved pineapple tin after the slices of fruit have been taken out. "A halfpenny a small glass" is the price usually charged. The man who sells sarsaparilla as a beverage has sometimes a gay and attractive [-56-] vehicle fitted up for the purpose. It is gorgeously labelled in gold, and wherever it stands draws around it an admiring crowd. "Herb beer" is somewhat similarly retailed.
    An article on London's Light Refreshments would not be complete without a reference to the railway station buffet large and small. For many years the pork pie and the Banbury cake were held to be the ordinary food of the travelling Englishman. Of late years great improvements have taken place in railway buffet catering. A spirit of humanity has animated the directors and they no longer look upon their passengers as human ostriches. At the railway termini of London and on the many branches of the Metropolitan and North London system you can to-day obtain light refreshment that will sustain you between meals without incapacitating you for the enjoyment of life for a fortnight. Tea and coffee may be had at most of the bars at all hours and although the hard boiled egg and the cold sausage are still displayed for the unwary and ham is the only form of sandwich known to some caterers, many little delicacies have been introduced, and there are signs of still further improvement.

Apple Fritters

 George R. Sims (ed.), Living London, 1902