Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 12 - The St. George's Café (St. Martin's Lane)

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CHAPTER XII

THE ST. GEORGE’S CAFE (ST. MARTIN’S LANE)

WHENEVER I have come across a Philistine who has eaten a vegetarian dinner, he always professes that he narrowly escaped with his life. Now this I knew must be an invention, and I was anxious to try for myself whether a dinner of herbs meant contentment or whether it did not, so I approached one of the high priests of the order, and asked which would be the restaurant in London at which it would be wisest to try the experiment. The answer I received was not of the most encouraging. The high priest had no very great faith in the cooking at any of the restaurants, and very kindly suggested that, if I wanted to try vegetarian diet, I should come and pay him a visit. If, however, I preferred the restaurants, the two he would suggest were the Ideal Café, 185 Tottenham Court Road, or the St. George’s Café, St. Martin’s Lane.
  
Before trying either I thought I would reconnoitre both. I passed the Tottenham Court Road café early in the morning, when neither people nor cafés look at their best. On the [-90-] brown brick front was a gilt device telling that it was a social club for gentlemen and ladies, and I gathered from legends on the windows that there was a ladies’ chess club, and that the café was a restaurant as well; indeed, was all things to all eating men and women; for on the bill of fare exposed in the window there were the prices of fish and fowl, as well as such entirely vegetarian dishes as haricot and potato pie and mushroom omelette. There was something of the appear­ance of a pastrycook’s about the windows on the ground floor, and a damsel was “dressing” one of them with yellow cloth, to act no doubt as a background to the delicacies presently to be ex­posed. I caught sight through the window of a counter with tea appurtenances on it.
  
It was in the afternoon that I made my second reconnaissance, this time in the direction of St. Martin’s Lane, and I found the St. George’s Restaurant to be a red brick building of an Elizabethan type, with leaded glass windows and with a sign, whereon was inscribed “The famous house for coffee,” swinging from a wrought-iron support. The windows on the ground floor had palms in them, and the gaze of the vulgar was kept from the inner arcana by neat little curtains. From the bill of fare I gathered that I could obtain such luxuries as grilled mushrooms and seakale cream, which cost iod., or mushroom omelette and young carrots sauté, which were is., or Yorkshire pudding with sage and onions and new potatoes for 7d. Before I moved on I ascertained that here also was a ladies’ chess club, and that on the first floor was a ladies’ room. I [-91-] made up my mind that the St. George’s should be my dining place, and the next question was how to secure some one to dine with me.
  
I had to be present that afternoon at a committee for a benefit theatrical performance, and found half a dozen of my fellow committee-men assembled. During a pause in the business one of them remarked that the Savoy dinner about which I had written seemed to have been an excellent feast. This gave me my opportunity, and mentioning that I was going to do another dinner for publication that evening, asked if any one would care to dine with me. A pleased look came to at least four faces, but all were too polite to speak first. Then I said what the dinner was to be. One man had to go to a Masonic banquet; another was dining at a farewell feast to a coming Benedick; another had promised his dear old aunt to spend that evening with her: the guests bidden to the scriptural feast were not more prompt in excuses.
   I went on to my Service club and found there a subaltern who, in old days, had been in my company, and who would have followed me, or preceded me, into any danger of battle without the tremble of an eyelid. Him I urged to come with me, telling him that a man can only die once, and other such inspiriting phrases, and had nearly persuaded him when old General Bundobust joined in the conversation and told a story of how Joe Buggins, of the Madras Fusiliers, once ate a vegetarian dinner and swelled up afterwards till he was as big as a balloon. That finished the subaltern, and he refused to go.
 
[-92-] I had to go by myself. I opened the leaded glass door of the St. George’s and found myself in a long room with plenty of palms and a general look of being cared for, with a counter and many long white-clothed tables, with seats for about half a dozen at each. There were little black-dressed waitresses flitting about, and at the tables a fair sprinkling of men, neither obtrusively smart nor obtrusively shabby, who were dining, and who nearly all kept their hats on. I drifted down to the end of the room and sat at a table and told the waitress in rather a feeble way that I should like the best vegetarian dinner that the house could give me. The waitress suggested that I had better go upstairs to the table-d’hôte room, and I gathered up my goods and chattels and went like a lamb.
  
The room on the first floor was a nice bright little room, with white overmantels to the fire­places, with one corner turned into a bamboo arbour, with painted tambourines and little mandolines and pictures, and an oaken clock on the light-papered walls, with red-shaded candles on the tables set for four or six. Two pretty girls in black, one with a white flower, one with a red, were in charge, and another girl peered out from a little railed desk by the door. In the back­ground was a glimpse of a kitchen, behind a glass screen where some one was whistling “Sister Mary Jane’s Top Note,” and the two little waitresses were constantly hurrying to this screen with a “Hurry up with that pigeon’s egg,” or a “Be quick, now, with those flageolets.” My table was beautifully [-93-] clean, with a little bunch of flowers on it, with a portentously large decanter and an array of glasses.
  
The waitress with the red flower put down a little bill of fare before me, and I learned that my dinner was to be—

Hors-d’oeuvre.
Mulligatawny soup or Carrot soup.
Flageolets with cream and spinach.
Fried duck’s egg and green peas.
Lent pie or Stewed fruit.
Mixed salad.
Cheese.
Dessert.

Some olives in a small plate were put down before me, and through force of habit I took up the black-covered wine list on the table. The first items were orange wine, rich raisin wine, ginger wine, black currant wine, red currant wine, raspberry wine, elderberry wine. I put it down with a sigh, and ordered a bottle of ginger- beer. Then while I munched at an olive I looked round at my fellow-guests. There was a sister of mercy in her black and white, with her gold cross showing against her sombre garment; there was a tall, thin gentleman who would not have done for any advertisement of anybody’s fattening food; there was a young lady in a straw hat with a many-coloured ribbon to it, who was so absorbed in an illustrated paper that she was neglecting her dinner ; there were two other ladies enjoying their stewed fruit immensely ; and there were two other gentlemen of the type I had seen below, but who were not wearing their hats.
  
[-94-] The carrot soup, which was the soup I chose, was quite hot and was satisfying. The spinach was not up to club form and the flageolets topping it did not look inviting, but I made an attack on it and got half through, not because I wanted to eat it, but because I did not want to hurt the waitress’s feelings. The duck’s egg was well fried, and I enjoyed it, though the peas were a trifle hard. Then I fell into disgrace with the waitress, for I would have neither Lent pie nor stewed fruit, pleading that I never ate sweets. “What, not stewed fruit?’ said the little girl with the red rose; and I knew that in her opinion I had missed the crown of the feast. A little bowl of lettuce and cucumber, with a bottle of salad dressing, was put in front of me, and I mixed my own salad. Then I ate a slice of Gruyère cheese, and finished with some almonds and raisins that were grouped on a platter round an orange. It being, as the sign- board had told me, a noted coffee-house, I ordered a small cup of the liquid, and said “Black,” in reply to the waitress’s question.
  
It was capital coffee undoubtedly, and, having finished it, I asked for my bill. The waitress pulled out a little morocco-covered memorandum book, and presented me with this :— Ginger­beer, 2d.; coffee, 2d.; dinner, 1s. 6d.; total, 1s. 10d. I paid at the desk, and went forth feeling rather empty.
  
As I am writing, twenty-four hours after the event, I may conclude that Joe Buggins’s, of the Madras Fusiliers, fate will not be mine.
  
19th April.