Thursday 29 July 2010

Dining Houses, 1858

A nice piece from 1858 on London dining:

It is evening, and the grey twilight is hovering over the busy streets. The city of London has had its dinner, and having, for the most part, transacted their affairs for the day, its men of business have nearly vanished from the scene — gone in all directions, some to their comfortable villas in the suburbs, north, south, and west, and some by rail to Croydon, Reigate, or uttermost Brighton. The grand army of clerks, dismissed hours ago to enjoy their temporary furlough, have trudged or "bussed" it home to their families; and now there is a comparative solitude in that wide area fronting the Exchange; Cheapside mitigates its myriad march, aud Cornhill takes breath, after the moil and tussle which lasted almost from dawn to sundown. Let us turn out of the main route, down this quiet flag-paved court—quiet now, but which a few hours ago echoed with the ceaseless hum of voices and. the tread of hurrying feet. Yonder is the dining-house, at whose interior, with the permission of our friend the proprietor, we are going to take a glance. A waiter, after his warm day's work, is standing, aproned, at the door, to catch a mouthful of air, and just a glimpse of a few pale stars struggling forth in the deepening blue of the sky.
    "Is Mr. — within?"
    Mr.— steps forward at the sound of our voice, with an answering word of welcome.
    "A busy day to-day?" we ask.
    "Rather—nothing extraordinary ; about six hundred dinners, and the usual bar practice."
    "You have considerable standing at the bar, I believe?"
    "Yes; no sitting allowed. Out benchers don't come to the bar at all, you understand. The bar lunches—the bench dines. Come this way, I will show you where."
    Passing the bar, a plain polished slab, flanked by regiments of bottles and decanters and flies of glasses of ail shapes, we enter the lower dining-room, a capacious chamber, decorated in a style rather solid and substantial than attractively ornate. The tables, of dark mahogany on bronze importers, are parallelograms, projecting endways from the wall, and over them are brass rails and supports for the reception of hats, overcoats, and umbrellas. The benehes are nothing less than a series of well-padded easy chairs, constructed on the true accommodation principle of allowing to each diner his fair two and twenty inches, or thereabouts, of sitting-room, on which his neighbours on each side are prevented from encroaching by the stout supports for the elbows, which shut him in. With all this liberal space, the room will hold, and does hold daily, and several times a-day, about a hundred diners at once. Our friend tells us that he takes in few newspapers or literary attractions of any kind. The attraction of his house, on which he relies, is a good dinner at a moderate cost, served on the instant; and he confesses, without hesitation or reserve, that when he has seen a customer's money he is glad to see his back as soon as possible. This is as it should be. Men, whose time is money, whose very minutes are sometimes rateable at a golden value, do not come here to read. They call for their dinners— they dine, as deliberately as they choose; but, having dmed, they pay their reckoning and depart. Loungers, gossippers, disputants, newsmongers, and men with nothing to do, do not come here—or if they do, they soon find that the atmosphere of the price does not suit them, and they seek a congenial resort elsewhere.
    From the lower room we mount into the upper, noting as we go that the staircase is plated, so to speak, with a thick ribbed coating of leaden mail, which is found to be the only kind of stair-carpet which will stand the everlasting wear and tear of commercial feet. The upper room is furnished in a similar manner to the lower one as to accommodations, but in a superior style of ornament; the walls are divided into panels, in which are groups of flowers brilliantly executed, and a tracery of flowers winds round the painted pillars that divide the panelling. The gaselier is of the last new design, and the padded seats appear to be covered with morocco leather. This room will dine even a larger number than the one below, and with the same individual allowance of space. The dining, our friend tells us, begins at one o'clock, is at flood tide about three, languishes and ebbs at half-past four, and finishes before six, save on rare occasions.
    We now follow our friend to the kitchen, which is on the basement floor. It is a large airy apartment, lighted with gas, and fitted up in the regular English style, differing nothing from the ordinary kitchen of a gentleman's house, save in the multiplied appliances for doing the same thing ten times over at one and the same time. Thus, the range is large and deep enough to accommodate half a dozen spits, and the spits are long enough to contain three or four joints each. Then, for boiling, steaming, grilling, frying, stewing, there are a number of boilers, pans, grills, and circular orifices in what looks like a stone sideboard, underlaid with fires and furnaces—to say nothing of ovens for baking, and warming, and the usual culinary etceteras. The cooking being over tor the day, the kitchen is clean as a new pin; and the only vestige or symptom of anything eatable at all is a sleepy turtle lying on the stones in one corner, w here he slowly blinks his sad eyes as he peeps from under his shell, awaiting his turn for decapitation and evisceration. Our friend has periodical turtle-soup days, well known to the diners on 'Change. One of them comes off on Friday next, and then—good-bye to poor turtle.
   From the kitchen we descend into the cellar, lying at considerable depth beneath. There we have an imitation in miniature of the huge winevaults in the London docks. There is the same black, dusty drapery of cobwebs pendant from the ceiling, the accumulation, probably, of more than a century ; there is the same darkness and vinous odour, and the same moderate temperature. The chief difference is, that instead of interminable perspectives of casks, we have here interminable rows of bottles ranged on shelves, heels outwards, and swathed in the dust of more than one generation. The bottles are in a large variety of shapes—some with long, crane-like necks, others with barely neck enough for the cork; some large enough to hold an imperial quart, and others only professing to contain half-a-pint, and that only the conventional measure. The mass, however, are the familiar wine-bottle ; but this is as various in value as the others are in form: there are new wines from the wood, and old and sea-borne wines, which have not moved from the position they occupy since Victoria ascended the throne. Wines, especially wines in bottle, require careful looking after; they must not be exposed to the great heats of summer or the frosts of winter, or they would lose in flavour, and therefore in value. Our friend shows us the contrivance by which he can keep them at a nearly uniform temperature of about sixty degrees, all the year through. This he does by an ingenious ventilating apparatus, with which he can admit either warm or cold air at pleasure. Looking to the myriads of bottles displayed here, we have an idea that the consumption annually must be no trifle; and as we pass out we note, in an adjoining cellar, that the process of bottling from the pipe is going on, to supply the deficiencies that so regularly occur.
    Ascending from the cellar, our friend invites us to look at his larder. This also is no trifle. The larder is in the open air, and is in fact a small inclosed court in the rear of the house, roofed in only in part, like the stalls in Leadenhall market, and very like a miniature market in looks. There is the green-grocer's stall, with every variety of culinary vegetable, to the amount of something like a wagon-load; there is the poulterer's stall, with twexnty geese and as many turkeys all of a row, with no stint of fowls and game of all kinds; there is the butcher's stall, with thirty legs of mutton, half as many haunches, huge sirloins, barons, and buttocks of beef, and pork ad infinitum ; there are horns from Westphalia, bacon from Wiltshire, and sausages from Norfolk in piles. Then there is the baker's stall, with bread in all shapes, and store of flour for puddings and pies—not to insist upon a whole cargo of preserves and fruits in and out of season, and delicacies of various kinds for the dessert. Who would not like the run of such a larder as that?
    We have seen all now, and are ready to take our leave; but our friend does not allow visitors to his cellar to depart without tasting its contents. A bottle of that beeswing port, of some famous vintage whose precise date we forget, has been sent upstairs, and we are expected to take a glass or two.
    Pending this welcome refreshment after a rather toilsome day, we put one or two questions to our host
    "What do you do with the broken and refuse viands, which must unavoidably be left on your hands after six hundred people have been dining here, and with the numerous joints, which you cannot denude to the bone in serving your customers ?"
    " It is all given away," he replies; " a number of poor persons come for it every evening; we have no difficulty in getting rid of it, I assure you. It forms the chief support of several needy families, and they are grateful for it."
    We note this as an interesting fact, and cannot help wondering whether the same rule is at all general throughout London. If so, it forms a remarkable contrast to the practice which prevails universally in Paris, where the refuse of the higher class estaminets and restaurants is sold for its full value to those of a lower grade, who in turn sell their refuse to a grade lower still.
    "But," we resume, " we saw in your larder a huge tub full of fragments ef meat and vegetables. Why was that not fetched away with the rest?"
   "That is for to-morrow's soup."
    "To-morrow's soup! why, to-morrow is Sunday. You don't open your house on Sunday!"
   "No, but I make soup every Sunday morning, or rather it makes itself during the night. You see, this is a little work of charity which I have thought it my duty to look after. There is a wretched district down in Westminster, where the people are starving, body and soul. I used to go and speak to them of a Sunday morning before service time, in the hope of doing them some good, if it might be. But I found it a sad one-sided business, that of speaking of the state of their souls to people whose bodies were starving for want of food. So I hit upon this soup plan. I make some gallons of wholesome stuff, which costs me no great deal beyond the trouble. I have it served up hot to as many as choose to come on the Sunday morning early, and while they are eating it I read a chapter or two in the Bible, and after they have had their breakfast I can talk to them and pray with them a bit, with a little better face and more satisfaction to myself and them too, than I could when they were too hungry to think of anything else. I suspect my plan is vulnerable to objectors, but, notwithstanding that, I think it works well on tx`he whole; at any rate, the hungry are fed."
    We, who know by experience that the hungry stomach has the deafest of ears, make no objection to the plan. We rise and shake hands with our host, and depart, not without a notion that we have made more discoveries in the old dining-house than we had anticipated.

The Leisure Hour, 1858

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