Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 10 - Gatti's (The Strand)

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I WAS somewhat in a quandary. I was going to the new play at the St. James’s, and had made up my mind to dine at a little club not far from Charing Cross, of which I have the honour to be a member. I went into the sacred portals. I found the hall without a hat or coat hung up in it, and entering the big room of the club I disturbed the meditation of the club servants. There was, for a wonder, nobody in the club, no one had ordered dinner, and as I do not like being a solitary diner at a long table, with three guardian angels in white jackets hovering round me, I made up my mind to go and have my chop elsewhere. My time was short, for I was anxious not to miss a word of the first act. Any of the dinners of the hotels in Northumberland Avenue would be too long for my time; but I was within a stone’s throw of Gatti’s and thought that I would revisit an old haunt and revive memories of my days of subalternhood.
When I had a large crop of curly hair on my head, and just enough down to pull on my upper [-68-] lip, when a small allowance and a sub-lieutenant’s 5s. 3d. a day were all my wealth and I never entered the portals of Cox’s Bank without trembling, I used to go much to Gatti’s. If I had the felicity of entertaining a lady at a tête-a-tête dinner my ambition did not rise to the Café Royal—the Savoy and Princes’ Hall, and Willis’s and the rest did not exist at that time—where I should have fingered the money in my pocket and should have been desperately nervous when the waiter appeared with the bill. I went instead to Gatti’s. One could get a large amount of good food at a very easy tariff there, one knew exactly the price of everything from the card, and there was no smiling head waiter with a nest of plovers’ eggs at 7s. 6d. apiece, or a basket of strawberries for a guinea, to set one’s poverty against one’s gallantry. Asti spumante, too, is much cheaper than champagne, and I think most of the fair sex really like it better. Be that as it may, the financial question was the prominent one, and I sometimes found myself standing waiting at the Strand entrance alongside a gigantic porter and a huge hound. I made great friends with both the big man and the big dog, and, if after a quarter of an hour’s waiting, my fair guest did not appear the big man invariably consoled me with, “Do not despaire, saire. Perhaps the lady ‘as a dronken cabman.”
Gatti’s was not then as it is now. There was the straight run in from Adelaide Street, where strange-looking foreigners sat at the marble- topped little tables and made the most of one portion of some dish piled high with macaroni, [-69-] and there was the curving entrance-hall leading in from the Strand, with its white-clothed tables, and its steps up to the biggest room, and between the long gallery with its clothless tables and the aristocratic end of the restaurant the Messrs. Gatti sat at an oval desk to which each waiter brought every dish that was to be served, and there was a mysterious interchange of what looked like metal tokens. All the theatrical demigods of my subalternhood used to be at the tables too. There I first (off the stage) saw Nelly Power, whose photograph had adorned my room at Harrow, and a gay young fellow called Toole, and another named Lionel Brough, and H. J. Byron, and half a hundred more. The modern lights of the stage and the dramatists go to Gatti’s still, and no doubt are furtively stared at now by youngsters such as I was then. There were many interesting people at Gatti’s in those days, as there are now, and most fascinating to me was an old aide-de-camp of Garibaldi, a fine, white-moustached old man in a slouch hat and voluminous cloak, with some­thing of the look of his great chief about him, who always ordered only one dish, and that of the cheapest. The halfpenny he gave the waiter as a tip was always received with as many thanks as a reckless young swell’s half-sovereign would be.
The entrance from King William Street is new since those days, and so is the room it leads into, making Gatti’s, with its triple entrances, rather like the crest of the Isle of Man. I went in by this new entrance, noticing that the house [-70-] next door had also been absorbed into the restaurant, and found myself again in the familiar scene of bustle. Every table was taken; here a single gentleman, pegging away at his cut from the joint, there a family party, the father with a napkin tucked under his chin, the child with one tied round its neck. There was a party of girls in much-flowered hats who unmistakably belonged to some theatre; two dramatists with a bundle of brown-paper-covered manuscript on the table between them ; a little costumier in blue spectacles eating silently, while a light-bearded gentleman, who is the best-known perruquier in London, was telling him volubly of the wonderful wigs that Mdme. Sarah Bernhardt had ordered for her new piece. The dramatists would have had me stay and eat at their table; but I wanted to go if possible to my old seat, and so went on to the largest room, the centre of the  restaurant, where I used to retain a corner table. Not a seat was to be had, everywhere were parties of respectable citizens and their wives in broadcloth and stuff, and the bustling waiters in dress clothes and black ties could only look round helplessly when I asked them to find me a table. I was the one man in dress clothes in the room, the waiters excepted, and I began to think, as I stood rather desolately amid all the bustle and clatter, that I should have done more wisely to dine in solitary dignity at the club, when I looked towards the table where the two Messrs. Gatti in old days, when they were not at the desk, used to sit, for they were always together, and there was the survivor of the two sitting in [-71-] his accustomed seat. The author of Captain Swift, who had been sitting opposite to him, talking, no doubt, about a coming play for the Adelphi, rose at that moment, and Mr. Gatti, seeing my dilemma, motioned me to the vacant seat. We none of us grow younger, and as I shook Mr. Gatti’s hand I thought that, though his hair, brushed straight back from the forehead, and his moustache are hardly touched with grey, he was looking very careworn.
One of the managers, in frock-coat and black tie, was at my elbow with the bill of fare. Croûte au pot, printed in bigger letters than the rest of the dishes, first caught my eye, and I ordered that; and, skipping the long list of fish and entrées, I was puzzling as to which of the many Joints to have a cut from, when the manager suggested braised mutton, which I thought sounded well, and for drink I would have a big glass of cold lager-beer.
I looked round the rooms. Except for the new rooms and a new serving-room, everything seemed very much the same as of past times. The crowd at the marble-topped tables was not quite so picturesque as that I remembered of old ; but the great counter, with its backing of dark wood and looking-glass, its lager-beer engine, and its army of bottles, was there, the oval desk with its two occupants was there, the carvers with the big dish-covers running up and down on chains were there. The decorations of blue and gold were of the same colours that I recall, the stained window I remembered, but a new portrait of the late Mr. Terriss, the actor, in the [-72-] well-known grey suit, looked down on me from the wall.
The soup, strong and hot, with its accompanying vegetables on a separate plate, was brought, and, having disposed of it, I thought that it was a good opportunity to interview Mr. Gatti as to the transformations of the restaurant and as to his theatrical speculations. I learned a that the first state of the Adelaide Gallery was a long entrance leading to one big room, that the floor of the restaurant was where the cellars are now, and that two balconies at that time ran round the room. Bit by bit the various changes were explained to me, until the advent of the braised mutton, with white beans and new potatoes, brought a pause. Capital mutton it was—a huge helping too—and the lager-beer delightfully cold and light. “A concert season at Covent Garden was your first theatrical speculation, was it not? “ I had begun, when my eye caught the clock over the arch. I wanted to hear about Covent Garden and the Adelphi and the Vaudeville, and I wanted to eat cheese and drink coffee and some of the excellent old brandy the restaurant has ; but the hands of the clock pointed to twenty minutes to eight, and at a quarter to eight the curtain would rise at the St. James’s, so I called for my bill. Soup, 1s. 6d.; entrée, 1s.4d.; vegetable, 4d.; bread, 1d.; beer, 6d. ; total, 3s. 9d.
5th April.