Few places are more changed, and changed for the better,
in the period of my memory, than the dining-rooms and
restaurants of London. In the days of my early youth there
was, I suppose, scarcely a capital city in Europe so badly provided with eating-houses as ours; not numerically, for there
were plenty of them, but the quality was all round bad. And
this was not for lack of custom, or of customers of an appreciative kind: for, as I shall have occasion to point out, there
were comparatively few clubs at that time, and those which
were in existence had not nearly so many members, nor were
nearly so much frequented, for dining purposes at least, as they
now are. There was not, it is true, in any class so much money
to spend as there is now: young men who to-day sit down to
soup, fish, entrées - then called "made dishes" - a roast, a
bird, a sweet, a savoury, and a bottle of claret, would then have
been content with a slice off the joint, a bit of cheese, and a
pint of beer; but everything was fifty per cent. cheaper in
those times, and there was an ample profit on what was
The improvement, as I shall show, came in suddenly. There were no Spiers & Pond, and, of course, none of the excellent establishments owned by them ; no St. James's Hall, Café Royal, Monico's, Gatti's, Bristol or Continental restaurants, scarcely one of the now fashionable dining-houses. Verrey's was in existence, to be sure, but it was regarded as a "Frenchified" place, and was very little patronized by the young men of the day, though it had a good foreign connection. Dubourg's, in the Haymarket, opposite the theatre, was in the same category, though more patronized for suppers. The Café de l'Europe, next door to the Haymarket Theatre, originally started by Henry Hemming, who had been jeune premier at the Adelphi, was, notwithstanding its foreign name, a purely English house, as far as its cooking was concerned. All these places, however, were far beyond the means of me and my friends. If we wanted foreign fare - and, truth to tell, in those days of youth and health, and vast appetite and little money, we were not much given to it - we would go to Rouget's in Castle Street, Leicester Square; or to Giraudier's in the Haymarket; or, best of all, to Berthollini's in St. Martin's Place, I think it was called - a narrow thoroughfare at the back of Pall Mall East. A wonderful man Berthollini: a tall thin Italian in a black wig - there was a current report that many of the dishes were made out of his old wigs and boots; but this was only the perversion by the ribalds of the statement of his supporters, that the flavouring was so excellent that the basis of the dish was immaterial - who superintended everything himself and was ubiquitous; now flying to the kitchen, now uncorking the wine, now pointing with his long skinny fore-finger to specially lovely pieces in the dish. There was a story that some rash man once asked to be allowed to inspect the kitchen, and that Berthollini had a fit in consequence. I have no doubt that the culinary preparations were mysterious; but they were well flavoured, highly seasoned, and much relished by us. They, and the pint of Chablis or claret - all red wine which was not port was claret in those days - were a pleasant change from the eternal joint, the never-to-be-avoided chop or steak, to which the tavern-diner was then condemned.
The "Slap-bang "-so called from the rate at which its meal was devoured, or from the easy manners of those who served it - was, in truth, not a very appetising place : it is admirably described in Bleak House, where Mr. Guppy entertains the hungry Jobling and the preternaturally-knowing Smallweed. At "Slap-bangs" napkins were unknown; the forks were steel- pronged, the spoons battered and worn, the tablecloths ring-stained with pewter pots and blotched with old gravy and bygone mustard. The room was partitioned off into "boxes," with hard and narrow seats, and a narrow slip of tressel-table between them : attendance was given sometimes by females, fat and bouncing, like the "Polly" of Mr. Guppy's banquet; or dirty and slatternly; or by men in the shiniest and greasiest of black suits. I used frequently to dine at Izant's in Bucklersbury, where indeed everything was well done, mainly for the pleasure of being quit of these wretches, and being waited on by men dressed in wholesome clean linen blouses.
In the City, Tom's, Joe's, and Baker's; Dolly's Chop-house, the Daniel Lambert on Ludgate Hill, the Cheshire Cheese, the Cock, the Rainbow, Dick's, Anderton's - all in Fleet Street - the Mitre in Fetter Lane, the Southampton in Southampton Buildings, Rudkin's Salutation Tavern in Newgate Street, and a house in Brownlow Street, Holborn, where wonderful Burton ale was on draught, were much frequented.
More westerly places were Short's, the well-known wine-shop in the Strand, where at that time dinners were served in the upper rooms; its neighbour, the Edinburgh Castle; Campbell's Scotch Stores in Duke Street, Regent Street, where Mr. Blanchard, the founder of the celebrated Restaurant Blanchard, learned his business ; Sinclair's Scotch Stores in Oxford Circus ; and the American Stores near the Princess's Theatre: there were also some "Shades" under what is now the Empire Theatre, and what I have known variously as Miss Linwood's needlework exhibition, the Walhalla for poses plastiques, Saville House for athletic shows, etc., etc. In these underground "Shades" a fair dinner at eighteenpence a head could be had in cleanliness and quiet; and Albert and Arthur Smith and I used frequently to dine there while the Mont Blanc entertainment was in embryo, and discuss its chances of success.
I well remember the excitement with which we young fellows about town received the rumour that a dining-place would shortly be opened where things would be done as at the clubs, and the eagerness with which we tested its truth. This, which was the pioneer of improvement, was the Grand Divan Restaurant, or, as it was better known, "Simpson's, in the Strand. The name of Simpson was at that time a power in the hotel and restaurant world. There were two brothers, one of whom had the well-known fish ordinary at Billingsgate - a tremendous repast for eighteenpence, where the water stood on the table in old hock bottles, where everything was of the best, and where, after the cloth had been removed, there was much smoking of long pipes and drinking of grogs. The other brother at that time owned the Albion, opposite Drury Lane Theatre, principally in vogue as a supper-house; and was afterwards the lessee of Cremorne Gardens. Rumour, for once, had not exaggerated; the whole thing was a revolution and a revelation. Large tables and comfortable chairs in place of the boxes and benches; abundance of clean linen tablecloths and napkins; plated forks and spoons; electroplated tankards instead of pewter pots; finger-glasses ; the joint wheeled to your side, and carved by a being in white cap and jacket; a choice of cheeses, pulled bread, and a properly made-out bill : all these were wondrous and acceptable innovations. The edibles and potables were all of first quality; the rooms were large and well ventilated; the attendants were clean, civil, and quick ; and the superintendence of Charles - formerly of the Albion, but who had now blossomed into Mr. Daws - was universal. Of course every well-conducted restaurant nowadays is conducted on these principles - "all can grow the flower now, for all have got the seed;" but the honour of originating the new style belongs to Simpson.
A want of a similar establishment at the West End was speedily supplied by the conversion of the fine building in St. James's Street - which, originally Crockford's Club, had been utilized as a dancing-shop and a picture-exhibition - into the Wellington Restaurant, which, carried out on Simpson's model, flourished for a time. The rent, however, was so enormous as to swallow up all the profits, and the concern was abandoned. Simpson's also served as the prototype for a more easterly imitator : Messrs. Sawyer and Strange, great refreshment contractors of that day, started the "London dinner" in the upper floors of the house in Fleet Street, the corner of Chancery Lane, and for some time were successful.
Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1847-1852]