Fancy a meal out this evening? Want to know the best place to go? Or do you just enjoy reading restaurant reviews? If so, then “The gourmet’s guide to London” [1914.6.383] is just for you – an entertaining read about the best places to dine in the capital, from humble taverns to the highest class hotels; from City banquets to intimate occasions with a single companion. It may be nearly 100 years out of date, but many of the establishments mentioned still exist…
Written in a very chatty and anecdotal style and published in 1914, one could also see it as a slightly poignant record of a lifestyle that was about to disappear with the Great War. The author, Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham-Davis, educated at Harrow and having served with “The Buffs,” clearly moved in certain circles and expected only the best of gourmet dining. A lifelong bachelor, he ate out as a matter of course and would seem to have been well known at many of the establishments he frequented.
It is interesting to see what he considered part of an everyday meal: he says that,“when men [abroad] … talk of the good things they will eat when they get home to England, the first idea that occurs to them is how delightful it will be to eat a good fried sole.”
Various game dishes, turtle soup, bacon, Oxford marmalade and Cambridge sausages are also mentioned and oysters were a staple – on their own, in oyster soup, scalloped oysters, oyster fries, pheasant stuffed with oysters; “jugged duck and oysters is a good old British dish and there are oysters in the majestic pudding of the Cheshire Cheese.” This latter puzzled me, but apparently it was a famous dish of larks, kidney, oysters and steak, made at the Cheshire Cheese public house in London and served with elaborate ritual.
For many of the places he dines at, Newnham-Davis gives the full menu (often in French, of course) and sometimes the price. For example, on a train journey from London to Southend, he dines on lobster mayonnaise, mutton cutlets, roast grouse, straw potatoes, salad, omelette au confiture, devilled sardines, cheese and biscuits and coffee. The Great Eastern Company insisted on giving him the meal for free (with an eye to the publicity, no doubt) so as he “could not argue with such an indefinite thing as a railway company” he is unable to give the cost of his food on that occasion.
Some of the menus are extraordinarily long to modern eyes. He lists the food served at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in 1913, which includes turtle, turbot, lobster, beef, partridge, cutlets, tongues, and seven sweets. The cost, with wine, was about two guineas a head, for what he describes as quite a light dinner. He may have had a point, as he then goes on to reproduce the menu for a similar event in 1837 which, as printed, was a yard in length! “No wonder our grandfathers mostly died of apoplexy!” he comments.
There is an entertaining chapter on the Greenwich fish dinner, which had fallen out of favour by the time of writing, but apparently in the early 19th century the Cabinet ministers of the day would take to barges for an annual pilgrimage downriver to partake of this meal. The author recounts a visit there with an actress, Miss Dainty and her doted-on fox terrier, which was not altogether a success as she was more concerned with the welfare of the dog, tied up outside, than with attending to her food, much to the waiter’s disdain.
Further on in the book, Newnham-Davis reviews a luncheon at a Chinese restaurant, damning it with faint praise as “quite a pleasant experience.” He boasts that Chinese food was no novelty to him, as when posted to the Far East he “learned by experience which were the dishes one could safely eat and which were the Chinese delicacies that it was wise to drop under the table.” While out there, he unwittingly ate puppy stew, was at a banquet where many suffered from “Asiatic cholera” afterwards and was once kindly given a slip of cold pig’s liver wrapped around a prune; on which he comments, “I do not think that I ever tasted a nastier combination.” Undoubtedly these experiences coloured his views, as he appears to have dined very circumspectly at the London restaurant.
Generally, the reports are positive, dwelling on the delights of the occasion, the friendliness of the proprietor and the pleasure of his surroundings and dining companions. He finishes by explaining why he only publishes complimentary reviews, but I found his statement rather contradictory: “it is not fair to condemn any restaurant … on one trial and … whenever I have been given an indifferent meal anywhere, I never go back again to see whether I shall be as badly treated on a second occasion.” Work that one out.