Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 16 - The American Bar, Criterion (Piccadilly Circus)

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IT was half-past seven, or it may have been even a little later, when I encountered the recorder of racing romances wandering along the eastern half-mile of Piccadilly, and both he and I had been too indolent to get into the conventional sables. To him it was a matter of no moment. Many racing campaigns had so “taken the corners off” him that, like that excellent warrior, but distinctly casual diner, Frederick the Great, he could sit himself down in any garb and return grateful thanks to Heaven for enough salt beef and cabbage for a meal—which may go to prove either that Frederick should have been enshrined among the martyrs, or that salt beef has monstrously degenerated.
A very good place in the old days for an undress dinner, the romancer declared when the subject was broached, was the American Bar at the Criterion, and further than this he went by telling me of the men who “knew their town,’ who swore by the succulent grilled pigs’ feet [-117-] to be had there at supper-time ; so there we went.
Managers come and managers go at the big caravanserai at Piccadilly Circus, but the American Bar remains the same. The ceiling had been recently renovated, and the fine patriotic design of the national eagle, with its talons full of forked lightning, had been embellished with some extra gold-leaf; otherwise there is little change. There are the little carved cupids on the outside portals, the marble - topped tables which are deftly covered with table - cloths by the waiters in the usual French garb of white aprons and short jackets when the meal-times approach, the partitions of brass rail, the marble columns, the panels of glazed tiles, and, at the end of the room, the grill with a clock above it, where, shielded by a transparent screen, a stout cook all in white stands and turns the chops and the steaks on the great gridiron where the fat drips through and fizzles on the coals beneath. The great janitors, both of mighty girth, who stand at the outer doors, look in occasionally to give a message, for from about twelve in the morning to midnight the American Bar is as busy as a beehive, and each edition of the even­ing papers is anxiously bought and scanned by most of the habitués, who have, as a rule, a tinge of the racing man about them.
After ordering our soup, a consommé Nevers that proved good, though we waited an un­conscionable time for it, my guest fell to point­ing out some of the many celebrities who were there, either sitting at the tables or standing at [-118-] the bar, where the many bottles on the shelves make a fine show, where the lager-beer engine is surmounted by a silvered statuette, and three white-coated tenders seem continually employed in mixing drinks in tumblers half-filled with crushed ice; and foremost amongst them was a Mr. Cockburn, a florid man of distinctly sporting appearance, whose cheeks still bore the unsightly scars that their wearer got in the now almost forgotten brawl with cutlasses in a house in Munster Terrace, Regent’s Park. Near him was a spare, dark man, dressed in grey, wearing his bowler hat very much over one ear. This was Saville, Cockburn’s fellow-sufferer in the battle of the blades, who, when the chief assailant, a Mexican card-cheat named Tarbeaux (now in penal servitude), was about to return to the attack on Cockburn, made the extraordinary appeal, “That’s enough; don’t twice him!”
Then there was sitting at one of the tables a burly fellow, broad of back and lavishly be- studded with diamonds, who the romancer in­formed me was a redoubtable bookmaker. He it was, said my philosopher, who headed the Birmingham contingent at most of the prize- fights of recent years, and particularly in evidence were they at the Smith and Greenfield and the Smith and Slavin encounters at Le Vesinet and Bruges respectively. The names of the other prosperous-looking people who formed a group round the hero of the diamonds have slipped my memory, but they all seemed to have a nickname of some kind, and the racing romancer, when I asked for information about any of them, invari­[-119-]ably began, “What, not know old—whatever the name might be?”
For our second course we took saumon, sauce Gervoise, and very good and well-cooked it was, though again we had some time to wait for it; and here it was that many eyes noted the entrance of a well-known Oriental banker, a gentleman of great wealth, and one of the last personages one would have expected to see dining solus and in the plainest manner possible. That it was a favourite resort of his seemed apparent from the fact that he walked straight to a table at which a chair had been turned up, and the manager of the room himself came forward to proffer those few words of advice which relieve the diner of so much hazardous speculation. Yet other new­comers were a stalwart ex-major of the Royal Artillery, and a music-hall agent, who in the halcyon past had half the proprietors of variety theatres in London at his feet. To each and all of them “Charlie,” the well-groomed head bar­keeper with the accurately-parted and immacu­lately plastered hair, had something of paramount interest to impart, and he seemed so bland that one wondered how he ever survived the friendly raids of the olden days when a certain festive youth and his companions were wont to take the place by storm, and on one occasion escaladed the bar, took possession of the tills, and scrambled the shillings among the chronic needy. What wild extravagances were they not capable of! It was here that the undefeated racing man who used to be known as the best-looking youth in London, and was to be seen daily in Piccadilly [-120-] with a black poodle decorated with bows of yellow ribbon, once mixed, for the entertainment of his friends, his fearful and wonderful “fruit-salads” —generally a couple of sovereigns’ worth of hothouse fruit steeped in the oldest cognac of Justerini and Brooks, and liqueurs variées, the effects of which the friends aforesaid found the greatest possible difficulty in sleeping off by dinner-time. 
    But our entrée arrives, a filet sauté Béarnaise, than which I desire to eat no better. A new arrival of guests, most of them fresh from Kempton, with their racing-glasses hung over their shoulders, included a young man with a familiarly known nickname, who in the first Jubilee years galloped through his money and earned his jubilant title ; another racing man, with the name of a philanthropist of a past generation, who at one time owned a property with two racecourses on it; and a gentleman who used to drive a yellow-bodied coach with four piebald horses, which he alluded to humorously as his mustard-pot and guinea-pigs, who having run through one fortune seems likely to make another. A sporting baronet, who takes an interest in yachting; a dramatist, who has written more than one racing play, and no doubt finds the American Bar useful for his local colour ; our cleverest caricaturist, and a dozen or two less well-known people, formed a solid mass before the bar, and occupied all the available tables. We had finished our Burgundy, which for its price was exceptionally good, and my guest had eaten some cheddar cheese, when the roving disposition of the racing [-121-] romancer asserted itself, and for our coffee and liqueurs we must needs go to the hospitable Eccentric Club across the way, so I called for the bill: Two consommé, 2s.; two salmon, 4s.; two filets sautés, 6s.; cheese, 6d.; Burgundy, 5s.; total, 17s. 6d.
17th May.