Eating-houses, or restaurants, have for many centuries been an intricate part of that texture. In the twelfth century one monk describes a great “public place of cookery” by the Thames where ordinary flesh and fish could be purchased—roasted, fried or boiled—while the more dainty could order venison, no doubt with ale or wine for refreshment. It may lay claim to being the first London restaurant, except that one historian of London believes that this place of city refreshment was in fact a survival of a Roman public kitchen. In that case the tradition of London hospitality is ancient indeed. The twelfth-century version included, for example, “a dining room for the rich man, an eating-house for the poor man” with a version of “take-away” in the event of friends calling unexpectedly. Certainly it was a large operation, perhaps equivalent to Terence Conran’s vast eateries in Soho and the West End, since according to William Fitz-Stephen “whatsoever multitude of soldiers or other strangers enter into the city at any hour of the day or night, or else are about to depart, they may turn in.”
The number of these eating-houses multiplied as the population increased, so that by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were many cook-shops clustered in Bread Street and East Cheap. These thoroughfares were known as the quarters for eating-houses where, under the supervision of the civic authorities, the price of meals was strictly controlled. Sometimes the customers would bring their own food with them, to be cooked in ovens on the spot, with the price varying from a penny to twopence for the cost of fire and labour.
The “ordinaries” were a sixteenth-century variation upon the cook-shop. There were twelve-penny ordinaries as well as three-penny ordinaries, the price varying according to style and comfort as well as the cost of the main meal. Wooden benches and trestle tables stood on a rush-strewn floor and the tapster or his boy wandered among the customers crying out, “What do you lack?” or “What is it that you would have brought?” Meat, poultry, game and pastry were served in succeeding order; “to be at your woodcocks” meant that you had almost finished eating. The citizens arrived about eleven thirty, and wandered about singly or in groups waiting for their meat to be served while some “published their clothes, and talked as loud as they could in order to feel at ease.” It was indeed an easy environment, and it became the pattern of the London eating-house, continuing well into the succeeding century.
In the late seventeenth century there is a description by François Misson of the butchers’ meat on the menu in just such a place—“beef, mutton, veal, pork and lamb; you have what quantity you please cut off, fat, lean, much or little done; with this a little salt and mustard upon the side of a plate, a bottle of beer and a roll.” At the end of the meal, when the payment or “reckoning” was made, the server carried a basket to the table and with a knife cleared away the crumbs of bread and morsels of meat. In many such establishments there was a “best room” for those with delicate or expensive appetites, while for the ordinary citizen a sixpenny plate in the “publick room” would suffice.
These eating-houses had by now migrated far beyond the bounds of East Cheap and Bread Street, towards the populous areas of the capital. Bishopsgate Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the Old Bailey, Covent Garden, Haymarket and many others besides, all had their local and well-frequented places of call.
In the eighteenth century they became known as “beef-houses” or “chop-houses,” together with taverns specialising in more formal or protracted meals. Dolly’s Chop-house in Paternoster Row was a particular favourite, serving its meats “hot and hot”—which is to say, delivered up as quickly as they were cooked. There was also a famous resort of cook-shops behind St. Martin-in-the-Fields, known to the natives as “Porridge Island”; it was a somewhat unsavoury haunt, however, where gin and ale provided as much sustenance as the food carried from the cook “under cover of a pewter plate.”
· · ·
Yet of course the most famous establishments of eighteenth-century London were the coffee houses. In fact, they found their origins in the middle of the previous century when, according to a contemporary note recorded in The Topography of London, “theire ware also att this time a Turkish drink to be sould almost in eury street, called Coffee, and another kind of drink called Tee, and also a drink called Chacolate, which was a very harty drink.” The first coffee house was set up in St. Michael’s Alley, off Cornhill, in 1652; two or three years later a second was established close by, in St. Michael’s Churchyard. A third, the Rainbow, located in Fleet Street by the gate of the Inner Temple, was prosecuted in 1657 for being “a great nuisance and prejudice to the neighbourhood”; the principal complaint was of “evil smells” as well as the danger of fire. Yet the popularity of coffee houses among Londoners immediately became apparent, both from “the convenience of being able to make appointments in any part of town,” as Macaulay said, and the further convenience “of being able to pass evenings socially at a very small charge.” By the turn of the century, there were some two thousand of them in the capital.
An anonymous painting of one, dated approximately 1700, shows several bewigged gentlemen sitting down to “dishes” of coffee; there are candles upon the tables, while the floor is of bare wood. One customer is smoking a long clay pipe, others are reading periodicals. One such periodical, the Spectator, opened its first number in the spring of 1711 with an account of the world of coffee houses: “sometimes I am seen thrusting my Head into a Round of Politicians at Will’s, and listning with great Attention to the Narratives that are made in those little Circular Audiences. Sometimes I smoak a Pipe at Child’s, and whilst I seem attentive to nothing but the Post-Man overhear the Conversation of every Table in the Room. I appear on Sunday Nights at St. James’s Coffee-House, and sometimes join the little Committee of Politicks in the Inner Room, as one who comes there to hear and to improve. My Face is likewise very well known at the Grecian, the Cocoa-Tree …” In all these coffee houses the news and rumours of the day were disseminated.
There were coffee houses for every trade and every profession, and Macaulay noted that “Foreigners remarked that the coffee-house was that which especially distinguished London from all other cities; that the coffeehouse was the Londoner’s home, and that those who wished to find a gentleman commonly asked, not whether he lived in Fleet Street or Chancery Lane, but whether he frequented the Grecian or the Rainbow.” The famous doctor, John Radcliffe, travelled from Bow Street to Garraway’s Coffee House, in Change Alley, Cornhill, where at a particular table he was always “to be found, surrounded by surgeons and apothecaries.” He timed his visits “at the hour when the Exchange was full,” no doubt in the hope of also being attended by rich merchants and brokers.
In other coffee houses, lawyers met clients and brokers met each other, merchants drank coffee with customers and politicians drank tea with journalists. The Virginia and Maryland Coffee House in Threadneedle Street became a recognised meeting-place for those engaged in business with Russia, and so changed its name to the Baltic. The Jerusalem in Cornhill was the haven of West Indies trade, while Batson’s in Cornhill was a kind of “consulting room” for doctors waiting to receive their clients in the City. Old Slaughter’s Coffee House, in St. Martin’s Lane, became the recognised centre for London artists. St. James’s of St. James’s Street was for Whigs, while down the road the Cocoa-Tree at the corner of Pall Mall was the haunt of Tories and Jacobites. The Grecian in Devereux Court catered for lawyers; Will’s on the north side of Russell Street, Covent Garden, was a haven for wits and authors. There was even a floating coffee house, a boat moored off the stairs of Somerset House, which was called the Folley. It was as “bulky as a man-of-war” and was divided into several rooms serving coffee, tea and “spiritous liquours.” Like many London establishments on the river it began with fashionable company but, by degrees, attracted drunken or disreputable customers until it seems to have become little more than a floating brothel. At length it decayed, and was sold for firewood. Not being on land, it had no tenacity of purpose.
Coffee houses, on land or on water, were generally somewhat dingy places, reeking of tobacco. The wooden floor was often sanded, with spittoons liberally placed. In some, the tables and chairs were stained and dirty, while in others there were “boxes with upright backs and narrow seats”; the lamps smoked and the candles spluttered. So why were they thronged with ordinary citizens and why did they, like the twentieth-century public house, become a token of city life? There was, as always, a commercial reason. The coffee houses acted as counting-houses and auction rooms, offices and shops, in which merchants and agents, clerks and brokers, could engage in business. Agents who sold estates or property would meet their clients in such places, while the sale of other goods was also encouraged. In 1708, for example, one could read the somewhat chilling notice, “A black boy, twelve years of age, fit to wait on a gentleman, to be disposed of at Denis’s coffee-house, in Finch Lane.”
The ambience itself could also be used to commercial advantage and sales by auction became a coffee-house speciality. At the “inch-of-candle sales” at Garraway’s, coffee, alcohol and muffins were employed to encourage the bidding. Garraway’s was opposite the Exchange and therefore a harbour “for people of quality who have business in the City, and for wealthy citizens”; as a result there were sales of books and pictures, tea and furniture, wine and hard wood. Wide and low-roofed, with boxes and seats running down its sides, it had a broad central stairway that led to the sale room upstairs, in such proximity that business and entertainment were curiously mingled. Its genial aspect, complete with sea-coal fire and muffins toasting on forks, is compounded by the description of its customers, by “Aleph” in London Scenes and London People, in “admirable humour; sly jokes were circulating from ear to ear; everybody appeared to know everybody.” But in London, appearances can be deceptive. Swift, commenting upon the effects of the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, in which fortunes were lost upon the crash of the South Sea Company in 1720, describes the speculators “on Garraway’s cliffs” as “A savage race by shipwrecks fed.”
“I am quite familiar at the Chapter Coffee-house,” wrote Thomas Chatterton to his mother in May 1770, “and know all the geniuses there.” The haunt of booksellers and aspiring writers, the Chapter was situated on the corner of Paternoster Row, opposite Ivy Lane, and was characteristic of its class with small-paned windows, wainscoted walls and low ceilings with heavy beams, making it dark even at noon. When Chatterton wrote of the geniuses he may have been referring to a small club of publishers and writers who always sat in the box in the north-east corner of the house and called themselves the “Wet Paper Club.” When they chose to recommend “a good book,” it was of course one that had sold extensively and rapidly. In this context, and company, it is perhaps worth recalling that Chatterton’s apparent suicide was considered to be the direct result of his inability to profit from the commercial practices of the London publishing world.
The Chapter was also known for its custom among the clergy, since according to “Aleph” “it was a house of call for poor parsons who were in hire to perform Sunday duty” and who also wrote sermons on request. The discourses varied in price from 2s 6d to 10s 6d—“A buyer had only to name his subject and doctrine” and the appropriate pious lesson would be delivered. If there was “a glut of the commodity” of charity sermons, “a moving appeal,” for example, “for a parish school” could be obtained at a very cheap rate.
Prices at the Chapter were on a par with other such establishments. At the turn of the nineteenth century, a cup of coffee was fivepence while four ham sandwiches with a glass of sherry cost twopence; a pot of tea, serving three cups, together with six slices of bread and butter, a muffin and two crumpets, cost tenpence—or, rather, a shilling since twopence extra went to the head waiter, William, one of those London types who seem forever fixed in the establishment where they work, a figure entirely made out of the quintessence of London. Of average height, somewhat stout, William was rumoured to have money “in funds.” He was imperturbable, always civil and, as the ever observant “Aleph” put it, “carefully dressed in a better black cloth suit than many of the visitors, wearing knee breeches, black silk hose and a spotless white cravat.” Of few words, he was always attentive; “his eyes were in every corner of the room.” He expected his “tip” of a penny or twopence but had moments of unexpected generosity; when “he suspected a customer was very needy, he would bring him two muffins and only charge for one.” He was on easy terms with regulars, who always called him simply “William,” but he inspected strangers “with inquisitive looks.” Those whom he deemed not suitable for admission were dismissed by suggesting that they “must have mistaken the house—the Blue Boar was in Warwick Lane.”
To this coffee house of hacks or “pen-drivers,” seventy years after Chat-terton, came Charlotte and Emily Brontë en route to Belgium. Charlotte recalled a head waiter, a “grey-haired, elderly man.” It is likely to have been William. He led them to a room upstairs which looked out upon Paternoster Row. Here they sat by the window, but “could see nothing of motion, or of change, in the grim dark houses opposite.” The street itself was so quiet that every footfall could be distinctly heard. One of Charlotte Brontë’s heroines, Lucy Snowe in Villette (1853), spends her first night in London in the very same coffee house. She looks out of her window on the following morning and “Above my head, above the house-tops, co-elevate almost with the clouds, I saw a solemn orbed mass, dark-blue and dim—THE DOME. While I looked my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who have never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life.” So, in the shadow of St. Paul’s, the London coffee house could produce revelations.
· · ·
The coffee houses lingered well into nineteenth-century London. When some became specialised exchanges, others turned into clubs or private hotels, while others again became dining-houses complete with polished mahogany tables, oil-lamps and boxes with green curtains dividing them. At the beginning of the nineteenth century another kind of coffee house altogether emerged which catered for the breakfasts of labourers or porters on their way to work. It served chops and kidneys, bread and pickles; one familiar order was “tea and an egg.” In many of them different “rooms” charged different prices for coffee. At four o’clock in the morning the poor customer would have a cup of coffee, and a thin slice of bread and butter, for one penny halfpenny; at eight o’clock breakfast for the less impoverished would include a penny loaf, a pennyworth of butter and a coffee for threepence. Arthur Morrison in A Child of the Jago (1896) describes a coffee house with “shrivelled bloaters … doubtful cake … pallid scones … and stale pickles.” Yet it was still a more respectable establishment than the neighbouring cook-shop, filled with steam, and may have given rise to that Cockney expression in the depths of poverty or despair—“I wish I was dead; an’ kep’ a cawfy shop.” In one of his visitations to the East End Charles Booth entered a “rough coffee-house,” and found a long counter “on which were piled, in rude plenty, many loaves of bread, flitches of bacon, a quantity of butter, two tea-urns … three beer pumps for Kop’s ale … and a glass jar filled with pickled onions.” Note the ubiquity of the pickle; Londoners love sharpness. Thirty years later George Orwell entered a coffee house on Tower Hill, and found himself in a “little stuffy room” with “high-backed pews” that had been fashionable in the 1840s. When he asked for tea and bread and butter—the staple of the working-class breakfast since the beginning of the nineteenth century—he was told “No butter, only marg.” There was also a notice upon the wall, to the effect that “Pocketing the sugar is not allowed.”
There were other places for a meagre breakfast. “Early breakfast houses” were essentially coffee shops by another name, “stiflingly hot,” with the flavour of coffee mingling with the “odours of fried rashers of bacon, and others not by any means so agreeable.” Ever since the eighteenth century there had also been “early breakfast stalls,” which were essentially kitchen tables set up at the corner of a street or the foot of a bridge, purveying halfpenny slabs of bread and butter together with large pots of tea or coffee heated over charcoal fires. These in turn were succeeded by more elaborate coffee stalls, which were constructed on the pattern of a medieval London shop with a wooden interior and shutters. They were generally painted red, ran on wheels, and were led by a horse to familiar locations at Charing Cross, at the foot of Savoy Street, on Westminster Bridge, below Waterloo Bridge, by Hyde Park Corner, and by West India Dock gates. They sold everything from saveloys to hard-boiled eggs, as well as coffee and “woods” (Woodbine cigarettes).
There is an animated painting, dated 1881, which depicts a variety of Londoners congregating around a “day stall” set up outside the gates of a park or square. The female proprietor is washing up a cup—most of the stalls were indeed run by women on the principle, maintained by many public houses of the present day, that aggressive customers were less likely to cause trouble and offence if a female was present. There is bread on the table, but no sign of the ham sandwiches and “water cresses” which were also part of the daily menu. A boy in a red jacket, bearing the livery of the City of London, sits in a wheelbarrow and blows upon his saucer of liquid; he was one of those employed by the City to run after horses in the street and scoop up their manure. A female crossing-sweeper and a female vendor, both with expressions of sorrow or perplexity, seem to be looking on at the feast. A well-dressed young lady, with umbrella and band-box, sips delicately from her cup on the other side of the stall. It is a suggestive picture of late Victorian London. In competition with such a stall was the baked-potato van, a portable oven wheeled around the streets. There were also oyster stalls where Londoners, as the saying goes, ate “on their thumbs.”
The ordinaries and the eating-houses continued well into the nineteenth century as chop-houses or ham-and-beef shops or à-la-mode beef-houses. There were also taverns or public houses where it was customary for the client to bring in his own piece of meat which was then dressed and cooked upon a gridiron by a waiter, who charged a penny for the service. The origin of twentieth-century pub food lies in these nineteenth-century establishments where “fine old cheese” and mutton pies and baked potatoes were generally on sale by the counter.
The old chop-houses and beef-houses were not necessarily of good reputation. Nathaniel Hawthorne described one such establishment, in The English Notebooks (1853–8), with “a filthy table-cloth, covered with other people’s crumbs; iron forks, a leaden salt cellar, the commonest earthen plates; a little dark stall, to sit and eat in.” He noticed that the conditions of this place, the Albert Dining-Rooms, were not uncommon. It was a measure of the discomfort and dirtiness to which Londoners, historically, have accommodated themselves. There were gradations in service and comfort, however. In the more formal dining-house a waiter, with napkin over his left arm, would announce to the client what was “just ready”; in a “rapid but monotonous tone” he would go through the list of “Roast beef, boiled beef, roast haunch of mutton, boiled pork, roast veal and ham, salmon and shrimp sauce, pigeon-pie, rump-steak pudding.” In the à-la-mode beef-houses there was a sixpenny plate and a fourpenny plate—“Two sixes and a four” the waiter would call out to the cook in a nearby kitchen.
Such places of resort, having dominated London in various forms for several centuries, were displaced in the latter half of the nineteenth century by “dining-halls,” “restaurants” associated with the new hotels, and “refreshment rooms,” connected to the new railway stations. They were not necessarily an improvement on their predecessors. In fact London’s reputation as the purveyor of drab and unpalatable food began essentially in the mid-nineteenth century. Henry James, in 1877, was scathing about London’s restaurants “whose badness is literally fabulous.” And yet they flourished. The St. James’s Hotel was reputed to be the one in which “separate tables for dining were first introduced,” but it was M. Ritz who capitalised upon the idea; the advent of his hotel restaurant effectively ended the old London fashion “of people dining together at large tables.” From the 1860s, the number of restaurants, “dining-rooms” and “luncheon bars” multiplied—the Café Royal opened in 1865 and the Criterion Restaurant (like many, named after an adjacent theatre) in 1874. Spiers and Pond Gaiety Restaurant, next to the Gaiety Theatre in the Strand, opened in 1869. There is a photograph of its “Restaurant & Ballroom”; a hansom is parked outside with men in top hats milling about the entrance. A contemporary description in Building News mentions a luncheon bar, a café and two dining-rooms all fitted out with an “ostentation of design” worthy of “the stained glass designer, or even the scene painter.” Restaurant and theatre were eventually swept aside for the construction of Aldwych.
Social changes were engineered by the advent of the restaurant. Women, for example, were no longer excluded from dinner. Walter Besant wrote in the early twentieth century that “Ladies can, and do, go to these restaurants without reproach; their presence has made a great alteration; there is always an atmosphere of cheerfulness, if not of exhilaration,” a description which by indirection suggests the somewhat mournful or low tone of the old-fashioned, all-male chop-house. The first restaurant to introduce music during meals was Gatti’s at Charing Cross, and the fashion spread quickly until by the 1920s only the Café Royal remained defiantly silent. With the new century, too, came the fashion for dancing at dinner and even between the courses. Other alterations were more gradual and subtler. Ralph Nevill, the author of Night Life in 1926, noted that the pace of the Victorian restaurant had been much slower with “always a pause between the appearance of the various dishes” as opposed to the speed and hustle of modern restaurants which the author ascribed to the advent of “the motor” on the streets of London. In the city everything connects.
In the new century, too, emerged the great chain of Lyon’s Corner Houses; they were instituted in 1909, and sprang from a number of tea shops and restaurants established at the very end of the nineteenth century—including the first entirely underground restaurant, Lyons of Throgmorton Street, with a grill room forty feet below ground level. All types of Londoners mingled within the plainer London coffee houses; similarly the London tea shops were considered to be “democratic … in the mixture of classes that you see therein seated together eating and drinking the same things.” Theodore Dreiser visited a “Lyons,” just above Regent Street, in 1913 and observed “a great chamber, decorated after the fashion of a palace ball-room, with immense chandeliers of prismed glass hanging from the ceiling and a balcony furnished in cream and gold.” Yet the dishes were “homely” and the customers “very commonplace.” Here, then, the demotic and theatrical characteristics of city living were effortlessly combined.
There is a vivid account of East End food at the beginning of the twentieth century in Walter Besant’s East London, with descriptions of salt fish for Sunday morning breakfast, of slabs of pastry known as “Nelson,” of the evening trade in “faggots, saveloys and pease pudding” and of course of the ubiquitous pie-houses or “eel-pie saloons” where jellied eels, saveloys or hot meat pies with mashed potatoes were the standard fare. These were rivalled only by the fish-and-chip shops.
In the years before the Second World War, a typical “Cockney” menu would comprise saveloy and pease pudding, German sausages and black pudding, fried fish and pickles, pie crust and potatoes, faggot and mustard pickle. Strong tea and lashings of bread and butter were the other staples of life. The situation was more complex in other parts of London, where there was much less emphasis upon a traditional cuisine, but the standard dish was always meat, potatoes and two veg swimming in gravy, thus reinforcing London’s reputation as a city with no real culinary skills.
Between the wars, and after the Second World War, London’s restaurants were considered very much below the standard of other European capitals. Some were restaurants of the middling English sort, serving beef and mutton and greens, sausage and mash, apricots and custard. But in Soho the restaurant trade flourished because of the influence of French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Chinese cooking. In the purlieus of Soho, too, an informality of eating was introduced or, rather, reintroduced. The first sandwich bar, Sandy’s of Oxendon Street, was opened in 1933; very soon sandwich bars and the new snack bars were springing up all over the capital. This revolution in taste was complemented, twenty years later, by the opening of the first coffee bar, also in Soho, the Mika, in Frith Street.
The world of quick eating and quick drinking, a phenomenon previously noted in the pie-shops of the fourteenth century no less than in the baked-potato vans of the nineteenth, thus re-established itself. Sandwiches are now the staple ingredient of the London lunch, from the Pret A Manger chain to the corner shop on a busy junction. There has been a concomitant increase in fast food, from burgers of beef to wings of chicken. The staple of the city diet remains the same, therefore, while the statistics of its voracious appetite also remain constant. The budget of London households, for “restaurants and cafés … take-aways and snacks” is, according to a survey of national statistics, approximately “a third higher than for the United Kingdom as a whole.”
London’s reputation as a culinary inferno was gradually dispelled during the 1980s, when large restaurants catering to every taste in food or ambience became fashionable. Now the London customer can choose between monkfish tempura and chilli breast of chicken with coconut rice, grilled rabbit with polenta and braised octopus with chickpeas and coriander. Many of these restaurants soon became flourishing commercial enterprises; their chefs were recognised and controversial London figures, their owners part of a chic world of art and society. In the 1990s the connection between food and commerce was rendered all the more distinctive by the “floating” of certain restaurants on the Stock Exchange; others have been bought by large companies as a profitable form of speculation. Some of the more recently established restaurants are very large indeed, and the fact that few tables remain unbooked is testimony to the permanent and characteristic voracity of Londoners. That is why it has always been known as a city of markets.