Mmmm, chicken nuggets

Bee Wilson

  • The London Restaurant: 1840-1914 by Brenda Assael
    Oxford, 239 pp, £60.00, July 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 881760 4

In 1901, London was still the largest city in the world. It had a population of six and a half million, two million more than New York and five million more than Tokyo. One of the ‘biggest wonders of this glorious Metropolis’ as well as ‘one of the most strangely human sights that the world can show’, according to J.C. Woollan, was the spectacle of all these millions of people being fed. On any given day, Woollan wrote, ‘there are nearly a million people lunching in restaurants within a few miles of the Strand.’ In the evenings, thousands dined in swanky West End restaurants, where a meal with wine might cost an average of a sovereign. But, as Woollan noted, ‘far more Londoners … live each day – and live not at all badly either – on a single shilling each.’ These Londoners visited sausage and pork houses, tea rooms, pie and eel shops and vegetarian restaurants, refreshment rooms and taverns, cookshops in Hackney that sold hot pease pudding and fried fish shops in Clerkenwell where you could buy ‘fish and tatters’ for a couple of pennies.

The spectacle of eating out in London in 2019 is still a ‘strangely human’ sight. Sometimes I find myself at the station on my way home trying to decide between a vegetarian burrito with extra guacamole at Benito’s Hat or a box of Moroccan meatballs at Leon and I think about how many other people across the city are choosing the same thing at that exact moment, weighing the cost against the carbs, deciding on something cold and easy versus something hot and filling, feeling guilty about eating meat, or wondering whether a ‘meal deal’ is a con.

All these businesses are trying to find ways to make more money from our culinary desires, to persuade us to pay more for less. Take chicken katsu curry. This was inspired by the fried katsu dishes of Japan and offers British eaters the gloopy comfort of school dinners, dolled up as a piece of Eastern exotica. The meat is breadcrumbed and fried, and served in a thick, sweetish sauce, heavy on the curry powder. Your head says: I am a cool person opening my mind to Japanese culture. Your stomach says: Mmmm, chicken nuggets. You can buy a chicken katsu curry in a paper bucket for £6.75 at Wasabi, or if you have a little more cash and time, you can sit down and eat a marginally more refined version for £9.95 at a branch of Wagamama, where it is garnished with a small salad and a few Japanese pickles. Like many British comfort foods, katsu depends on a fine balance between sogginess and crispness.

In London in 1885, there was a cheap Italian restaurant (its name and location haven’t survived) where a person could dine on a breaded veal cutlet served with curry sauce instead of the usual wedge of lemon. Breaded veal cutlets – often on the menu as côtelette Milanese – were a standard item at Victorian Italian restaurants, but the curry sauce was a novelty. A writer in the Caterer was enthusiastic: ‘Its crisp breadcrumbs will become slightly moistened by the sauce, but the eggs will hold good against curry and gravy.’ (This cutlet actually predates the original Japanese katsu curry, pork tonkatsu, first served in 1899 at a Tokyo restaurant called Rengatei.)

Before the First World War put an abrupt stop to it, the possibilities for eating out in London were far more extensive and varied than one might imagine. Brenda Assael’s book – which is full of rich and original research – concentrates on what what she calls the city’s ‘gastro-cosmopolitanism’: a rather off-putting term for a useful concept. Like modern Londoners, the Victorians could have Indian food and Turkish coffee, Italian pasta and Malaysian curry, and Assael argues that the London restaurant helps us understand the diverse economy of 19th-century metropolitan life.

In the 1990s, just as the first Wagamama opened in Bloomsbury, there were endless discussions of the ‘food revolution’ that had taken place in Britain since the 1950s. I remember people speaking with astonishment at how far and how fast the experience of dining out had changed. We had gone from a culture that tolerated instant Nescafé and dried-up ‘parmesan’ in a cardboard shaker to one where people – some people, anyway – ground their own coffee beans and grated Parmigiano Reggiano. This was not Britain’s first revolution in eating out, as Assael demonstrates. Diners were having similar conversations a century earlier, looking back to the dark and dreary days of the 1850s. In 1851, a ‘gentleman’ styling himself H.P. wrote to the chef Alexis Soyer to complain that in the whole city there was no chophouse ‘suitable to men accustomed to have everything good, clean and comfortable at home’. George Augustus Sala wrote in 1894 that ‘vile gravy’ and ‘badly-roasted’ fowl served for high prices in drab rooms was the norm for London hotel dinners in the 1850s. By then Sala was a devotee of a racy-sounding place called Evans’ in Covent Garden, where it was possible to get dinner at 1 a.m. after an evening at the theatre. He praised its ‘red-hot chops, with their brown, frizzling caudal appendages sobbing hot tears of passionate fat’.

In How They Dined Us in 1860 and How They Dine Us Now, published in 1900, Clement Scott argued that forty years earlier ‘they dined us … clumsily and coarsely, and the women were left at home,’ whereas now they dine us ‘prettily, daintily and luxuriously and lovely woman is at the side of attentive man’. One of the themes of Assael’s book is that the social aspect of dining changed as much during this period as what was eaten. Scott agreed that the ‘new restaurant’ in London had ‘a very great deal to do with the social emancipation of women’. Women had been banned from the gentlemen’s clubs that dominated public eating at the start of the century, but could eat in some of the new restaurants; the Berkeley in Piccadilly even allowed unchaperoned female diners. In 1899, a piece in the Lady claimed that thirty years earlier women had almost never dined in public. Only one or two respectable establishments had allowed female customers, and women were expected to be accompanied by their husbands. Now, the writer for the Lady observed disapprovingly, ‘it has become the fashion for women of all classes to dine and lunch habitually at many of the well-known restaurants of London, with large or small parties, with or without their husbands.’ The author feared this development would lead to children being neglected or family fortunes ruined because women would squander so much money on clothes and jewellery to wear on such occasions. Some restaurateurs shared these worries and had signs put up announcing, for example, that ‘no ladies can be served between the hours of twelve and three’.

Women were welcome to eat at plenty of other establishments, however. In Aldersgate Street in 1892 three woman-only restaurants served factory workers a good lunch for sixpence, offering roast beef or mutton with pudding and a non-intoxicating drink. The new wave of vegetarian restaurants that opened in the 1880s and 1890s were regarded as places where female clerks could eat lunch without being ogled. The manager of one such restaurant on Jewin Street claimed that his customers included ‘a thousand demure little factory maids’ who enjoyed the ‘plain and healthy meals’ his restaurant offered. At their height in the 1890s, there were thirty or forty vegetarian restaurants in London. The food these places served was sometimes lacking in variety. At the Alpha on Oxford Street, there was lentil soup to start and three of the eight main courses also featured lentils. But the remarkable thing is that such places existed at all in a city where chops on the bone were still the default dish when eating out. Many of their customers – Gandhi was one – were ethical abstainers from meat and members of advocacy groups such as the London Vegetarian Society. There was an overlap between vegetarianism and the temperance movement, and these ‘fleshless’ restaurants were often also alcohol-free, serving lemonade or fruit juices instead. The Garden restaurant advertised itself as ‘Economical, Healthful and Humane’.

Not all of the customers were vegetarians, however; some simply wanted a cheap, light, healthy lunch. The Vegetarian journal complained in 1888 that most London vegetarian restaurants had been ‘created with a view to gain’. Then as now, selling vegetarian food could be a clever way of persuading diners to pay more for less (there was outrage earlier this year when Young’s, a London pub chain, began charging £14 for a cauliflower ‘steak’). Some Victorian customers complained that vegetarian food was overpriced and unsatisfying. A side order of porridge was a common item on the menu but even that was usually more expensive than porridge sold without the ‘vegetarian’ tag at a coffee house.

According to figures published in Kelly’s – a trade directory – there were 106 London restaurants (including dining rooms and refreshment rooms) in 1840. By 1910 there were nearly two thousand, with four hundred in the West End alone. By the 1880s, 1700 coffee houses offered food at modest prices across the city. J. Lyons and Co. had 37 refreshment rooms by the end of the century (they became known as Lyons Corner Houses in 1909). It was said that Lyons – with its charming waitresses, sumptuous cakes and well-placed branches – was feeding half a million Londoners every day by 1910. It was not the biggest chain in Victorian England. John Pearce started off with a coffee stall on the corner of East Road and City Road and by the 1890s had 46 refreshment rooms, 14 with hotels attached. Pearce & Plenty mostly catered for poor workers with ‘large appetites but small means’ as the Caterer put it. The chain fulfilled the demand for coffee, tea and cocoa (‘You will notice that we only use Fry’s Concentrated Cocoa’) but also served lunches (beef pudding was popular).

Pearce & Plenty was itself dwarfed by Spiers and Pond, run by Felix Spiers and Christopher Pond, two British men who had met in Australia in the 1850s. By 1888, the company was overseeing 211 railway buffet and refreshment rooms selling everything from slap-up dinners to two-shilling breakfasts to cold meals of veal and ham pie or sausage rolls and hard-boiled eggs. The Spiers and Pond empire also encompassed a number of pricier restaurants in theatreland. They remodelled the Criterion and the Gaiety, doing them up with ‘liberality and good taste’. In 1886, they opened a restaurant called the Palsgrave on the Strand at which they pioneered a new and more efficient way of organising a restaurant. Under the Duval system, each diner was handed a ticket on which the price of each item they’d ordered was marked. At the end of the meal, the diner paid the cashier on the way out and avoided what one reviewer described as the usual ‘bustle, scramble and harassing delay’. The efficiency of the system meant that prices could be kept relatively low. Soup cost between four and eight pence, meat from eight pence to two shillings. Spiers and Pond seem to have thought of everything. They even owned a vegetarian restaurant next door.

The decoration of these restaurants was also part of their appeal. Verrey’s in Regent Street was a place to see and be seen. It had dark green panels and small square tables with red-shaded candles. The ceiling had silver arches and there were so many mirrors on the walls that diners were reflected multiple times. One restaurant critic, Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, called it a ‘rendezvous of the more aristocratic foreign visitors to London’, making it sound like something out of a Henry James novel. Newnham-Davis wrote that Mrs Myra Washington dined there, an American who knew ‘most people who are worth knowing in Europe’. As she sat at her table, her ‘cream-coloured miracle of a dress’ was reflected in all the mirrors.

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What explains the immense growth in London restaurants in the late 19th century? Assael never fully answers this question, although she shows that many forces came together at once to drive expansion. One factor was simple demographics: the 19th century population explosion meant there were many more mouths to be fed. London had six times as many inhabitants in 1910 as it did in 1800. Lunchtimes at popular dining haunts could be a scrum: a visitor to Pearce & Plenty in 1900 described a ‘shouting, swallowing throng of newsboys, printers’ “devils”, bricklayers’ labourers, carters and sweeps’.

Culinary entrepreneurs made huge profits from the appetites of Londoners. In 1911, a restaurateur called Giacomo Monico left an estate valued at £75,573. But such fortunes were not easily made. Restaurateurs needed to build up and retain small armies of staff. As Assael explains, ‘in addition to a head chef, there were stove cooks, pastry cooks, head cooks, larder chefs, roasting chefs, sauce chefs and vegetable maids,’ plus a manager to oversee them all. A successful restaurateur also had to visit the markets at 5 a.m. every day and avoid the large amount of produce that was rotten or adulterated or unsound. The ingredients, once bought, were stored and cooked in kitchens fitted out with an elaborate range of equipment, from potato-peeling machines to ox-tongue holders (they stopped the tongue from slipping as it was carved).

New technologies, from canned food to refrigerators, played a huge role in the expansion of the London restaurant. All the metropolitan railways stations had refreshment rooms. A luncheon basket – containing a hot chop with potatoes and all the trimmings – could be bought on long train journeys. The spread of modern forms of lighting, first gas then electricity, lengthened the hours of business. The traditional London chophouse had opaque windows, but the new chic restaurants had plate glass windows so that their customers were displayed like merchandise in a department store. By the 1890s, Assael writes, ‘many restaurants used electricity to light their dining rooms, as well as to cook their food.’

The London restaurant was, and remains, largely the creation of immigrants. As a writer for Hotel noted in 1895: ‘It is a common remark that the restaurants of London are in the hands of foreigners.’ In the 1890s, a husband and wife team opened a successful German and Austrian delicatessen in Leicester Square. Italians were said to go to a restaurant in Hatton Garden to ‘frivol with claret and lemonade’ and eat ‘monumental’ plates of macaroni dressed in tomato sauce. On the wall was a cheap oleograph of King Victor Emmanuel and his consort. The Falcon Restaurant near the Strand served Indian and Malay curries so hot they would ‘revive the dead’, according to the Caterer, while an Indian chef at the Criterion made dishes that were quite ‘genuine’ and served with ‘chutnees galore’. Twenty London restaurants were serving Indian food in the 1880s, and Chinese food too found its way into the city. The Times reported in 1913 that thirty Chinese shops and restaurants were to be found near opium dens in the East End.

In 1885, the Caterer estimated that there were around seven thousand German waiters in London as well as more than four thousand of other nationalities. Huge numbers of Italians and Germans came to England after the unification of both countries in 1871, and a great number of them went into the food trade. According to census data, there were 5138 Italians in London in 1891 and 26,920 Germans; so, if the Caterer was correct, 40 per cent of the Italians and 25 per cent of the Germans in the city worked in the restaurant business. There were also large numbers of Russians, Poles, Czechs and French. Restaurant managers needed to be proficient in several languages in order to communicate with their staff.

The waiters themselves had to learn the language of British civility. An article from 1890 attempted to lay out the full ‘tariff of politeness’ in London restaurants. A penny tip merited only ‘contemptuous silence’, whereas 2d elicited a ‘thank you’ and 3d might provoke a smile and a ‘Sir’. If a customer tipped a full sixpence, he might find himself rewarded with a bow and a display of ‘servility’. One commentator observed that foreign waiters tended to be more skilled and presentable than ‘the average English knights of the napkin’. The life of a Victorian waiter wasn’t easy. The Waiters’ Record complained in 1900 that a typical waiter worked for 16 to 18 hours a day in ‘rooms full of smoke and foul air’, and didn’t have a long enough break to eat his own meals properly. The pay was terrible and some employers would deduct ‘glass money’ from the waiter’s pay for any crockery broken by customers. Waiters were also expected to tip the porter, the plateman and the attendant in the servant’s hall, and often to pay for their board. Through it all, they had to smile and scrape and bow and give the impression that there was nowhere they would rather be than here in this smoky room serving chops and sauce to City gentlemen.

German waiters (and French and Italian chefs) made Londoners feel at home when eating out; in exchange, Londoners (some of them, anyway) accused them of treachery. There had always been a certain amount of xenophobia towards foreign waiters, not least from British waiters, but in the 1880s the idea began to circulate in popular novels that foreign waiters were spies. In 1883 C. Forth published The Surprise of the Channel Tunnel. The plot involved French soldiers disguising themselves as pastrycooks and waiters to prepare the way for invasion from under the Channel. In The Invasion of 1910 (1906) William Le Queux imagined German waiters, clerks and bakers conspiring against the British. London, he wrote, ‘awoke to find herself a German city’.

On the eve of the First World War, this paranoia about foreign waiters became part of the political discourse. In an article entitled ‘Banish the Teuton’ in the Evening News, a writer signing himself ‘A Patriot’ demanded that readers should boycott all hotels and restaurants where German and Austrian waiters were employed. ‘Publish a list and let the man in the street know, and if knowing, he still trades with the King’s enemies … let him be treated as a pariah.’ In August 1914 at least four German waiters were arrested for crimes including failing to register with the police. Some restaurants serving foreign food began displaying Union Jacks to assure customers of their patriotism.

In the end, the war killed off most of the cosmopolitan elements in the London restaurant. As Assael writes,

German waiters, subject to either internment or deportation, effectively disappeared from London’s dining rooms in the autumn of 1914, while large numbers of Italians engaged in the restaurant business returned to their homeland and offered their services to Italy’s war effort after 1915. The dislocation of world trade and widespread food shortages during the First World War also adversely affected the range of food choices available in the capital.

It would be half a century before the restaurant scene recovered the cosmopolitan character of the late Victorian era. What will happen to London food if, in the wake of Brexit, all the European waiters and chefs (not to mention all the fruit pickers and farm workers and caterers) decide to leave?