Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 3 - The Holborn

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THE American Comedian and myself stood at a club window and looked out on London. He was rehearsing, and so enjoyed the rare privilege of having his evenings free to spend as he liked. I had no business, except to get myself a dinner somewhere, so we agreed to eat ours in company.
The difficulty was to decide where to dine. The Comedian dined at one club or another every day of his life before going to the theatre, so a club dinner was out of the question. Not having a lady to take out we agreed that we did not care to go to any of the “smart” restaurants: we wanted something a little more elaborate than a grill-room would give us, and more amusing company than we were likely to find at the smaller dining places we knew of.
I think that the suggestion to dine at the cheap table d’hôte dinner at one of the very large restaurants, to listen to the music, and look at the people dining, came from me. Our minds made up on this point, there was the difficulty of selecting the restaurant, so we agreed to toss [-16-] up, and the spin of the coin eventually settled upon the Holborn Restaurant.
In the many-coloured marble hall, with its marble staircase springing from either side, a well-favoured gentleman with a close-clipped grey beard was standing, a sheet of paper in his hand, and waved us towards a marble portico, through which we passed to the grand saloon with its three galleries supported by marble pillars. “A table for two,” said a maitre d’hôtel, and we were soon seated at a little table near the centre of the room, at which a waiter in dress clothes, with a white metal number at his buttonhole and a pencil behind his ear, was in attendance waiting for orders. The table d’hôte dinner was what we required, and then I noticed that I had to ask for the wine list, and that it was not given me opened at the champagnes, as is usually the custom of waiters.
The menu, which on a large sheet of stiff paper peeps out from a deep border of advertise­ments, is printed both in French and in English. This is the English side of it on the night we dined :-


Purée of Hare aux croûtons.


Supreme of Sole Joinville.
Plain Potatoes.
Darne de saumon. Rémoulade Sauce.


Bouchées a l’Impératrice.
[-17-] Sauté Potatoes.
Mutton Cutlets à la Reforme.


Ribs of Beef and Horseradish. Brussels Sprouts.


Chicken and York Ham.
Chipped Potatoes.


Caroline Pudding.    St. Honoré Cake.
Kirsch Jelly.


Cheese.     Celery


    We agreed to drink claret, and I picked out a wine third or fourth down on the list.
The Comedian said he was hungry, and I told him that I was glad to hear it, for it might check the miraculous tales which he generally produces at meal-times.
With the Spaghetti soup, which was brown and strong, the Comedian told me the tale of the mummy of one of the Ptolemies who lived some thousands of years B.C. which was revivified in the Boston Museum by having clam soup administered to it. It was not one of the Comedian’s best efforts, and I capped it easily by a tale of the Japanese jelly-fish soup which is supposed to confer everlasting life, and which tastes and looks like hot water.
The darne de saumon was rather a pallid [-18-] slice, which I attributed to package in ice; but which the Comedian said was owing to its having overgrown its strength. “And that reminds me,” he had just begun when I had the presence of mind to anticipate him, and to tell the story of the 140 lbs. mahseer which it took my uncle, on my mother’s side, three days to land from the Ganges. I felt bound to tell him that the anecdote he subsequently related of a tarpon, that his first cousin, twice removed, had hooked, towing a steamer’s lifeboat from the Floridas to Long Island, sounded like an invention.
To avoid friction we talked of our neighbours. Next door to us was a merry little party of three ladies, one a widow, and a gentleman in a red tie, and the Comedian invented quite a storyette, after the manner of Dickens, of the kindly brother taking his three sisters out to dinner on the birthday of one of them—no brother would order champagne for his sisters except on the occasion of a birthday, he said. A couple, in mourning, were husband and wife, and the Comedian, being in the vein, wove a pathetic little story round the unconscious couple. Two young men, in spick-and-span black coats, with orchids in their buttonholes, dining with two pretty girls, were groomsmen from some wedding entertaining two of the bridesmaids. Some nodding plumes showing over the second balcony the Comedian declared must belong to the “principal boy” of some provincial pantomime.
The cutlet of mutton that was brought to each of us was small, and had suffered from having to journey some way from the kitchen; [-19-] but it was well cooked, and there was unlimited sauce with it. When I told the Comedian the established fact that at the Cape the sheep have to have wheels fitted to their tails, he pretended that in New England there is a breed that draw their tails in miniature waggons. I flatter myself, however, that my tale of the Ovis Polii, the perpendicular shot and the three thousand feet fall down a Cashmerian gully left him breathless. To save the Comedian from brain-weariness caused by invention I drew the waiter into conversation, and, beginning with the band—a good band, but much too loud— learned that we should find the time each piece was played on the programme which was on the back of the menu. It was not a full night, our waiter told us, but we were early, it was only 7.15, and the saloon would fill up presently; and then he drifted into wonderful figures of the number of guests the Holborn could hold at one time. We wondered inwardly, but sent him off to get us our beef and Brussels sprouts. “When I was out with Buffalo Bill—” the Comedian began as the waiter returned; but as my only story to go with beef is a Wildebeeste story, not one of my best, I mentioned somewhat austerely, that our helpings were growing cold. Then the Comedian, who was invincible in appetite, ate a helping of chicken and ham and reported favourably. Encouraged by this, I ate a slice of the ham which, with a dash of champagne for sauce, was good. The Comedian told rather a foolish story of a nigger robbing a hen-roost, which gave me an opening to relate my celebrated anecdote [-20-] of the Naval Brigade and the chickens during the Zulu War, an anecdote which has been known to make a rheumatic bishop and a deaf Chairman of Quarter Sessions laugh.
The sweets we took as read, and finished up our dinner with an ice, a trifle too salt, I thought. The waiter had been disappointed at our taking no sweets, but when we refused the offer of cheese and celery and dessert, he was afraid that something must be the matter with us, for most people at the Holborn eat their dinner steadily through.
The saloon had filled up as our waiter had predicted. There was a howling swell with tuberoses in the buttonhole of his frock-coat and a lordly moustache. There were two youngsters in dress clothes and “made-up” ties making merry with two damsels. There was a pretty actress - "she’s going to play in our new piece. It’s her first night off from playing at the Frivolity, and she has come here to be quiet," said the Comedian. There was a business man from the north being entertained by two City friends, and a host more diners whose history we had not time to invent, for our waiter had taken the pencil from his ear and was standing ready with a little book in his hand.
“Dinners, 7s. ; attendance, 6d. ; one bottle claret, 4s. 6d. ; total, 12s.” That was the bill our waiter gave us, and he said "Thank you" very heartily for a shilling for himself.
I should have appreciated my dinner more if the Comedian had confined his conversation to facts.
[-21-] I regret to hear that the Comedian permitted himself to say, next day, at the Club that it was a thousand pities that I could not tell a story without exaggeration.

15th February.