Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 14 - Le Restaurant des Gourmets (Lisle Street)

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THE superior person and I were chatting in the club as to eating generally, and he was holding forth on the impossibility of discovering any dining place, as Kettner’s was discovered by our fathers, where a good meal could be had at a very small price.
I turned on him and rent him figuratively, giving him a list that commenced with Torino’s and ended with the Hotel Hanover, and asked him if he had been to any of them. He had not. His system was to go to the Savoy or Willis’s, or the Princes’ Hall, and then to grumble because he could not get his meals at those places at grill-room prices. I finally pinned him by asking him whether he would, as a man and a discoverer, come with me that evening and dine at the Restaurant des Gourmets. The name seemed to tickle him, and he said something about going home to change into dress clothes, which I assured him was unnecessary, and he then asked where this restaurant was.
[-103-] Did he know the stage door of the Empire? And the superior person looked at me in answer to that question with a look that showed me that he had a full-blown Nonconformist conscience. I explained that the Restaurant des Gourmets was in Lisle Street, as was the stage- door of the Empire, that I was not trying to lure him to meet any fairy of the ballet, but that if he came with me he would very probably find some members of the Empire orchestra dining, and as likely as not M. Wenzel, the conductor, himself. Six was the hour I proposed to dine, changing afterwards into dress clothes, to go to a first night at the Duke of York’s, but the superior person sniffed, and said that that was too early for any one to eat an evening meal. So I left him, and my ideas having been turned towards the little Lisle Street restaurant, I wandered down there.
Lisle Street is not exactly an aristocratic locality. There is next door to the Restaurant des Gourmets another restaurant which has been newly painted, and which posts its bill of fare upon its front, and there is the office of a musical publication ; but most of the rest of the houses are dingy private residences. The outside of the restaurant is not too inviting either. It has a double window with a yellowish curtain hiding the inside from view, and the woodwork is painted a leaden gray.
It is well to be early at the Restaurant des Gourmets, for by half-past six there is rarely a seat to be had at any of the tables.
At six to the stroke I pushed back the door [-104-] with its whitened glass panel, whereon is inscribed “Entrée,” and was in the humble home of the connoisseur. A burly Frenchman with a beard, another with his hair combed over his forehead in a fringe, and a third with a slight beard and wearing a little grey cap, were drinking vermouth at one of the tables; otherwise the room was empty.
I sat down at one of the tables, and a waiter in dress clothes and a clean shirt put a bill of fare, written in cramped French handwriting on blue paper, in front of me. The first item on the blue paper was hors-d’oeuvre — hareng, saucisson, sardines, radis, beurre, 2d., and I ordered these delicacies and some soupe, paté d’Italie, which also cost 2d., and then proceeded to look round.
The Frenchmen, talking volubly, had gone out. Another waiter with a light moustache had joined the first one, and both were regarding me with the interest the waiter always has in a chance customer whose tip may be lordly or the reverse. Up against the window were piled little bowls of salad, the green and white telling well against the yellow of the curtain, and a great stack of long French loaves of bread cut into sections which, with their white ends and brown crust, had something of the appearance of a pile of little logs. In front of the window was a counter covered with green baize, on which were some long uncut loaves, an earthenware bowl, a kettle, and a bright metal machine that had a lamp under it, and contained either coffee or soup. A comely Frenchwoman in black, [-105-] with an apron, was behind this counter, and as the waiters gave her an order she shouted it down a little lift, and the dish was presently hoisted up from the depths below.
At the far end of the room is a sloping glass roof, with panes to lift up for ventilation. The pink paper on the wall under this gives the touch of colour to the picture. The other walls are of plain panelling painted a greyish white with pegs all round to hang up hats and coats upon, and an occasional mirror in a dark wood frame. Placards with “Toutes les boissons doivent être payées a l’avance,” and “La pipe est interdite” are posted round the walls, and there were some flowers in vases on the mantelpiece. The little tables to hold two or four were round three sides of the room, with coarse but clean napery, glass bowls for the pepper and salt, with little bone spoons, and thick glasses, and decanters of water. The couches against the walls were covered with black leather, the chairs were of Austrian bentwood. The waiter had put L’Eclair, a French news­paper printed with the usual abominable French type, in front of me.
I nibbled at the bit of herring in a little saucer, and drank my soup, which was just as good as if it had cost two shillings instead of twopence, and then proceeded to order the rest of my dinner, a proceeding which was regarded with mild interest by the little Frenchman with a slight beard wearing the grey peaked cap, who had returned.
“C’est le patron,” said one of the waiters, and I promptly introduced myself to him, and began [-106-] to cross-examine him as to the identity of his clients, for the room was filling very quickly. M. Brice sat on a chair by my table, which now had its full complement of diners, for the burly, bearded Frenchman, the other with the hair combed down on to his forehead, and a third with a carefully curled moustache, had taken the three vacant places.
“That,” said M. Brice, indicating a dark gentleman with a curled moustache, “is Chaudoir, the chef d’orchestre at Sergeant Sole.”
“What?” I said, bluntly enough.
“At Sergeant Sole, where they are blacked.”
A sudden inspiration that Sergeant Sole was St. James’s Hall came to me.
“And that,” pointing to a gentleman with a red tie, “is the gentleman who does the socialistic writing for the Pall Mall.
Three clean-shaven gentlemen were vaguely described as “artists,” and after gazing at a lady in black with white hair for some time, M. Brice said, “That is an old woman.” The two gentle­men sitting opposite this lady were the Messieurs Chose, of a firm in Old Broad Street, and the three Frenchmen at my table were big men in the greengrocery line, who come over two or three times a year to Covent Garden.
A clean-shaven, prosperous-looking gentleman, with a young lady in black, entered just then, and a note of admiration came into M. Brice’s voice as he told me that this was the coachman of the Baron Alfred de Rothschild.
The turbot and caper sauce, which was the most expensive part of my dinner, costing as [-107-] much as 8d., I did not care for very much; but, on the other hand, the gigot haricot, which followed it, was excellent. M. Brice, who kept up a running accompaniment of con­versation to my dinner, told me that all the meat cooked at his restaurant was English.
There is no such thing as a wine list at the Restaurant des Gourmets, and I had ordered at a venture a pint of vin ordinaire, which the waiter told me would cost sixpence. It is a rough, strong wine, and I suggested to M. B rice that it probably was of Corsican or Sardinian growth. M. Brice shrugged his shoulders and from some­where produced a pint of claret, with the name of the late M. Nicol of the Café Royal, on it, and told me that he was able to sell that at a very moderate price.
The omelette that I had ordered was as light as a French cook always makes them, and the slice of brie that closed my repast was as coulant as it should be.
Then M. Brice, still talking, made me out my bill on the back of one of the cards of his restaurant. Hors-d’oeuvre, 2d.; pain, 1d.; potage, 2d. ; poisson, 8d. ; entrée, 6d. ; omelette, 4d. fromage, 2d. ; half ordinaire, 6d.; total, 2s. 7d.
1st May.