Victorian London - Publications - Etiquette and Advice Manuals - Dinners and Diners, by Lieut.-Col. Newnham-Davis, 1899 - Chapter 28 - The Cavour (Leicester Square)

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I FIRST met Arthur Roberts in the buffet of the Cavour, and first heard there the tale of “The Old Iron Pot.” On that occasion I was taken by a friend into the buffet, a long room with a bar decorated with many-coloured glasses, a broad divan running along the wall, and many small tables by it. Seated on the divan was a thin, clean-shaven little man, talking to a very tall man, also clean-shaven. So immersed in their conversation were the two that they hardly acknowledged me when I was introduced to them ; “ they” being Messrs. Arthur Roberts and “Long Jack” Jervis, both of them then playing in “Black-eyed Susan” at the Alhambra, almost next door. As far as I could make out, the entrancing story that Mr. Arthur Roberts was telling, had as its central figure an old iron pot. He was in deadly earnest in his recital. Mr. Jervis and my friend were thoroughly, almost painfully, interested, and accompanied the story with little exclamations of surprise and sympathy, but for the life of me I could not [-204-] follow the narrative. All sorts and conditions of people suddenly were introduced into the tale by name, and as suddenly disappeared out of it. Arthur Roberts finished, and the other two broke into speeches of congratulation, saying how thoroughly interested and affected they had been. I, in a bewildered way, commenced to ask questions, when the mouth of the merry comedian began to twitch up on one side, and his eyelids to blink. Then I understood. I was another victim to the tale of “The Old Iron Pot.”
It was in this buffet, which remains now as it was then, that Arthur Roberts invented the game of “spoof,”—but that is a very long story.
There has always been a savour of Bohemian­ism around the Cavour, and therefore it was only right and proper that the six of us who sat down to dinner there one August evening, should all in our time have wandered through the pleasant paths of the country of free-and-easiness. With grey hairs has come ballast, and one of the party is now a great landowner, doing his duty as high sheriff of his county; two of the others are chairmen of boards controlling great theatrical enterprises ; a fourth, who won renown originally as a Jehu, now coins money in successful speculation ; and the fifth is the trusted adviser of a well-known plutocrat. One of the chairmen, who can claim the title of successful dramatic author as well, and is not unknown on the Stock Exchange, was the giver of the feast. Our gathering came about through an argument on the relative merits of [-205-] cheap and expensive restaurants, and whether there was value received for the difference in the price of the dinners. The chairman was a warm upholder of the cheap dinner, and con­cluded the argument by saying, “When I go to the Savoy or Princes’ I am prepared to pay for my surroundings and company; when I want food only I go to Philippe of the Cavour, and ask him to add something to his three-shilling dinner, and to give me five-shillings-worth, and if you fellows will come and dine with me there you shall try for yourselves.” And “we fellows” said like one man that we would.
The Cavour, which shows its clean white face, adorned with golden letters, to Leicester Square, has grown immensely since I first made its and M. Philippe’s acquaintance. There comes first a narrow little room, with a big counter on which fruit and flowers and cold meats are displayed, and behind which a lady in black stands. Here M. Philippe, shortish, grey-haired, with a little close-clipped moustache, black coat, and turned-down collar, with a black tie, generally waits to usher his patrons in, and find them seats. Then comes the big room, the walls in light colour, brass rails all round to hold hats, on the many mirrors a notice pasted, “Our table d’hôte Sundays, 6 to 9”; in the centre a big square table with a palm in the middle of it, the table at which, when the room is crowded, lone gentlemen are set to take their dinner, and around the big table a cohort of smaller tables. The ceiling mostly consists of a skylight, the windows in which always keep [-206-] the room cool. Beyond this room is another one, newly built, also light in colour, and with many mirrors.
As soon as we were seated, M. Philippe came bustling up. He is a very busy man, for he believes in the adage as to doing things well; and, therefore, he is up at five every morning, and goes the round of the markets, and in his own restaurant is his own maitre d’hôtel. Yet, busy as he is, he finds time to devote much attention to Freemasonry, and his list of sub­scriptions to the various Masonic charities has generally the biggest total of any sent in. He was supposed in this charitable competition to have been, on one occasion, outstripped by another worker in the cause, and we immedi­ately began to chaff him on the subject. M. Philippe acknowledged that a march had been stolen on him ; but to make up for it he had been eminently successful in securing the admission of a little girl to one of the masonic institutions. "She got in on top of our poll," was his way of putting it. The feast he had prepared for us was as follows

La petite marmite.
Filets de soles Mornay.
Poulet sauté Portugaise.
Côtes de mouton en Bellevue.
Canetons d’Aylesbury.
Petits pois Française. Salade. Haricots verts.

    I noted that the petite marmite—I seem doomed always to be given petite marmite — was good, and was more enthusiastic than that over the fillets of sole, for those, I thought, were “very good.” The whitebait, erring on the right side, were a trifle too soft. The poulet sauté Portugaise was a triumph of bourgeois cookery, but so rich that I was glad that the good doctor who takes an interest in the state of my liver was not one of our party. The Aylesbury ducklings were fine, plump young fellows, who must have lived a youth of peace and contentment. We drank with this substantial dinner some ‘89 Pommery.
There is always a bustle at the Cavour, and a coming and going of guests. Directly a table is vacated plates and glasses are whisked away, fresh napkins spread, and in a few seconds M. Philippe has personally conducted some incoming guests to their seats. The table d’hôte is served from five to nine. First to the feast comes a sprinkling of actors and actresses, making an early meal before going to the theatre. Then comes an incursion of white-shirt-fronted gentle­men and ladies in evening dress, dining before going to the play. Lastly comes the steady stream of ordinary diners, good bourgeois most of them, who choose to dine as they have come from their City offices, in frock-chats or other unostentatious garb.
As we settled down to our meal, a theatrical manager, who had been giving one of the prettiest ladies of his company dinner, was leaving. A well-known amateur coachman, just up from [-208-] the country, had time to give his wife something to eat before going off to catch another train; a white-bearded gentleman was entertaining two pretty daughters in evening dresses, and was desperately afraid that they would not get to the theatre in time to see the curtain rise. A very pretty lady, with a hat of peacocks’ feathers and a great bow rising from it, was an actress “resting.” The rest of the diners who filled the room were all good, respectable citizens and citizenesses, in fine broadcloth and silk, but none of their faces was familiar to us through the pages of the illustrated papers.
This was the bill paid by the chairman:- Six dinners at 5s., £1: l0s.; three bottles Pommery, ‘89, £2: 2s.; one seltzer, 6d.; five cafés, 2s. 6d. ; six liqueurs, 4s. 6d. ; total, £3:19:6.
M. Philippe has a little pleasure - ground attached to the restaurant, a plot of kitchen garden and an orangery, the vegetables and herbs and fruit from which must cost him about a thousand times their value at Covent Garden. But it is Philippe’s hobby, and he likes to be able to give any favoured customer a bunch of mignonette grown in a garden within thirty yards of Leicester Square. At night the blazing cressets of the Alhambra and the gas decorations of Daly’s light this strange little bit of rus in urbe, and when one wonders at a practical man keeping such desirable building land for such a purpose, M. Philippe shrugs his shoulders and says, “The earth he grow every day more valuable.”
16th August.