A Time Traveler’s Guide To Dining Out In Victorian London

Are you thinking about time traveling to Victorian London for the Season? Have you considered where you will stay, where you will go,  and, most importantly, where you will dine? Luckily, there’s London Of To-day: An Illustrated Handbook For The Season to be your time-traveling tourist guidebook. The author, Charles Eyre Pascoe, recommends many dining establishments–from taverns to tearooms.  Let’s start with excerpts from the 1885 edition of his book.

Of all the dining-places in London, small or spacious, ancient or modern, highly ornate or very dingy, few supply “the joint” in greater perfection than the Albion, in Russell Street, Covent Garden. It is an unpretentious tavern, “all of the olden time,” the dining-room partitioned off into stiff-backed “boxes,” so that a party of half a dozen may dine and chat in reasonable privacy without being disturbed by casual comers. At one time it enjoyed a considerable reputation as a place of resort for literary men and actors. Its smoking-room was once the pleasantest place of the kind in London, outside the clubs, and harboured such genial spirits as the late Charles Dickens, Douglas Jerrold, Albert Smith, Shirley Brooks, Robert Brough, E. A. Sothern, J. L. Toole, Charles Lamb Kenney, and the rest. The punch concocted in that smoking-room was good; the water sent up boiling hot in an old-fashioned pewter jug, the glass with an old-fashioned silver toddy-ladle, and the spirit in an equally old-fashioned fat little pewter measure. Those were the days when the Albion had the privilege of keeping open till three o’clock in the morning, and its smoking-room was the rendezvous of journalists, authors, actors, and other good men and true, after the closing of the theatres. After five o’clock a fresh joint is served in the dining-room of this tavern every half-hour—saddle or haunch of mutton, ribs or sirloin of beef, roast fowls, boiled round of beef, rumpsteak-puddings, and so on. Fish is served in the same order—salmon, turbot, brill, haddock, &c. The dish you elect to dine from is wheeled up to your table, and the carver serves you with as much and as often as you please. The Albion provides its customers with a thoroughly home-like English dinner, which costs, with a moderate quantity of light wine or ale, from three shillings to five shillings. It is to be noted that this dining-room is never honoured with the presence of ladies.

Illustration from London of To-day

The chief rivals of the Albion (not to be confounded with its namesake in Aldersgate Street) in the West and Central districts are “Blanchard’s,” in Beak Street, Regent Street; “Simpson’s,” in the Strand; the Rainbow, near the Middle Temple Gate; the St. James’s Restaurant, in Piccadilly. The dinners supplied at these places are to be commended. A better roasted saddle or haunch of mutton than “Simpson’s” serves, or used to serve daily, is not to be had in London. The Rainbow is largely patronized by the lawyers. “Blanchard’s” is largely frequented by civil service officials, and the wealthier west-end tradesmen. The St. James’s is a good place for luncheon, particularly during the season.

***

Half-a-dozen years ago the best French restaurant to be found in all London was a little place in Church Street, Soho, quite away from the beaten track, kept by one M. Kettner. The rooms were small and ill-ventilated, and the place and its surroundings were stuffy and uninviting; but the dinners sent up from M. Kettner’s kitchen were delicious.

At Mouquin’s by William J. Glackens

Among the French restaurants of greater note in London, Verrey’s is entitled to the front place. It stands on the west side of Regent Street, at the corner of Hanover Street. We advise anyone who during the season has a very special luncheon, or dinner, in contemplation, to seek out Verrey’s… It does not make much show (all the better for that, perhaps), and its cookery and wines are excellent. Verrey’s was, we believe, the first French restaurant opened in London. The original Verrey was a Swiss, who, long ago, gained a reputation for sweetmeats… He was in a flourishing condition forty or fifty years ago; and in the Great Exhibition year, Verrey’s restaurant became the rendezvous of the more aristocratic foreign visitors to London, who flocked thither to eat pistachio ices, and other delicate morsels.  

At Verrey’s, as in Paris, one can call for any of the well-known dishes in la haute cuisine; the “carte” is simply a guide to the uninitiated. The portions served are usually sufficient for two covers. The wine-card shows that the cellar contains the famous vintages, ’69 Lafites (tirage du chateau), for example, Romanée Conti, ’74 Pommery, &c. The list of vintage champagnes, indeed, is unequalled.

***

American and continental visitors chiefly patronize this restaurant about noon for the déjeuners à la fourchette; afterwards, from 12.30 to 3 p.m., many ladies “drop in” to lunch after shopping. The chef’s best efforts, however, are reserved for the evening.

Illustration from London of To-day

In the neighbourhood of the Strand are one or two good dining places, chiefly, however, patronized by gentlemen, notably the Tivoli, Romano’s, and Gatti’s recently renovated Adelaide Cafe. At the first, German cookery, and, for a London restaurant, good German wines and beer are to be had. The prices, too, are moderate. Romano, whose charges are high, has a reputation for Italian and French cookery, and on the whole is not undeserving of it. Gatti’s appeals rather to the popular support; and a man (or woman) of slender resources and fair appetite may find a good dinner here for something less than 2s. There is more than one French cafe in the neighbourhood of Leicester Square, which may be recommended for a French twelve o’clock breakfast

***

As a rule, ladies will find themselves restricted to a choice of half-a-dozen London restaurants or confectioner’s shops, in which they may lunch or dine with comfort. The chief of these are Verrey’s Cafe Restaurant, the Bristol, the Burlington in Regent Street, St. James’s, before mentioned, the Grosvenor Gallery Restaurant, the Grand, and the establishments of Spiers and Pond at the railway stations and elsewhere. The principal confectioners patronized by ladies are Charbonnel and Walker’s, 173, New Bond Street, who stand supreme; Marshall’s, opposite Charing Cross Railway Station; Thompson’s, 188, Regent Street; Simpson’s, 247, Oxford Street; Duclos’, near the Princess’s Theatre (178, Oxford Street); Buszard’s, 197, in the same street (south side). 

Library of Congress

Ladies, with proper escort, going to the theatres, will find both the Criterion and the Grand pleasant trysting-places for dinner between six and seven. So, also, St. James’s restaurant in Piccadilly.

***

On Sunday, if one should be compelled to dine away from his hotel or lodging, he must arrange to take his principal daily meal either between 1 and 3, or after 6 afternoon. The London restaurants are closed till 1, and between 3 and 6. Dining-places like Verrey’s, the Bristol, the Continental, and cafes of lesser degree are usually full on Sunday nights. The former are largely patronized by gentlemen who treat their wives and daughters to a mild dissipation to break the monotony of Sunday, or by more conscientious folk who dine out to give their servants a rest. 

Claude Allin Shepperson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (1910)

With respect to the railway terminal restaurants, it may be interesting to note, for sake of comparison, that the London and North-Western, London and South-Western, Great Northern, Great Western, and Midland Companies, manage their own refreshment bars, or rather have them managed by contractors. A traveller may secure a meal of hot roast meat and vegetables, the wing of a fowl, or a savoury pie, together with wine, beer, coffee, tea, or milk, at a reasonable price. Several of them are quite popular dining-rooms, notably the Mansion House Metropolitan Station refreshment room…The Holborn- viaduct establishment has of late become popular, and deservedly so.

Of chop-houses there are still a few remaining: the Cock Tavern, in Fleet Street, lives on its reputation acquired before the Griffin and the Law Courts stood where they now stand: The Cheshire Cheese, in the same thoroughfare, is of equal distinction among chop-houses, though, as it seems to us, not quite the Cheshire Cheese of twenty years ago; Stone’s, in Panton Street, in the Haymarket, is entitled to special notice as one of the oldest of this class of houses in London.

The following excerpts can be found in the 1890 edition of London Of To-day.

Try the Dorothy Restaurant in Oxford Street (near Orchard Street) if you are among the number of those who “detest to have men about the place.” Dorothy Restaurants admit no men. Such as cannot abear the smell of baked meats might try Bonthron’s and one or two confectioners in Regent Street, or the Aerated Bread Company’s dépôts (to be noticed in almost every leading thoroughfare) and find them to their liking. These last are good places, clean, and well-managed, supplying very fair coffee and tea, milk, and wholesome bread and butter, eggs, etc., at moderate prices —5d. for a cup of coffee and bread and butter.

***

Than Gunter’s, in Berkeley Square, there is no better place in London for ices.

The Corner Table by Irving Ramsey Wiles

Vegetarianism may be practised at a restaurant near Duke Street, Oxford Street; at the Arcadian in Queen Street, Cheapside; or at the Apple Tree in London Wall, within the City, and rather out of the track of ladies. Those, however, most curious in the matter of vegetarian diet might take a peep into the Central Vegetarian Dining and Tea Rooms (a rough-and-ready sort of place in St. Bride Street, near Ludgate Circus), and read the prices and items therein exhibited of “Diners a la carte” “the sixpenny tea-tray,” and “the ninepenny tea-tray”—a marvellous assortment of homely and wholesome dishes of vegetables and of meal served at a very cheap rate.

Of banquets not specially prepared for the few, but daily organized for the many, we know of none more likely to meet the requirements of the diner-about in London, and those to whom he proffers hospitality, than the table d’hote dinners of the Grand and Metropole hotels. Apart from the essential materials of the meal, which few, we think, will find cause to grumble at, the whole business of these daily banquets is well contrived and well carried out.

Illustration from London of To-day

The dining-halls are well ventilated and spacious; the assembled company in the Season comprises not a few people of the first fashion staying in London; the tables are effectively arranged and decorated; a plenty of lights shows up the dresses of the ladies; and all is done in good taste, and with a view to the gratification of the eye, no less than the personal ease and contentment of the guests. 

One has but to take his place at the appointed table, glance at the menu laid before him, and proceed to the business of the evening, without care for the service or thought for the kitchen: the fair recompense demanded by the management for a seat at table being the sum of five shillings: not an extravagant charge, as charges elsewhere in London rule, having regard to the many conveniences that such hotels as these provide, and especially where ladies are of the company. No restaurant in London that we know is so desirable in respect of accommodation. The reception-rooms are open to you for receiving your friends before dinner, and the drawing-rooms lor chatting with them after dinner. 

The table d’hote dinner is daily served in each case from 6 to 8.30 p.m. For those later going to the opera or theatres, there are few better places in London, for the preliminary dinner. It is well in the busy season of summer, however, to order a table to be reserved beforehand.

The conveniences, we repeat, are many; the price fixed, and moderate; the dining-salons are spacious; everything is done in good taste; and the dinner is generally superior to that to be had in a restaurant for the same money, and is altogether better served. 

Illustration from London of To-day

It is of no little advantage to ladies coming to London, for the evening, from the suburbs or outlying districts to know of a place where they may dine in evening dress without seeming conspicuous, or intermingling with those whom they might be indisposed to meet. Either at the Grand Hotel or the Hotel Metropole they may be sure of the proprieties being very carefully observed.

The tables, for the most part, are reserved to family parties, and visitors staying in the hotel; and the service of the dinner is so arranged as to allow of a very fair margin of time for partaking of it without hurry and discomfort. “Our representative” of the Grand Hotel, hereinbefore referred to, has directed our attention to the following, as an example of the ordinary five-shilling table d’hote dinner there served: 

Antoine Gustave Droz

6 Replies to “A Time Traveler’s Guide To Dining Out In Victorian London”

  1. As a matter of interest, when did it become acceptable for ladies to eat in public, other than at Gunter’s, and the necessarily swiftly-snatched meals at inns when travelling?

  2. I was all excited for Albion…until I realized I’d have to go in drag. Guess it’s the Dorothy for me! Or one of those tryst-y places assuming I can round up a proper escort.

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