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Review Book Club: Chewing over our history of eating out

Once the butt of culinary jokes, Britain is now no slouch when it comes to restaurants. Peter Gruner digests William Sitwell’s new book on the subject Elizabeth David

15 May, 2020 — By Peter Gruner

William Sitwell. Photo: Nichole Rees

TELEVISION commentator Bernard Levin back in 1962 didn’t pull his punches when he described as “disgusting” some of the examples of service by the British hotel and restaurant industry.

Levin, quoted in food writer William Sitwell’s excellent new book, The Restaurant: The History of Eating Out, went on to castigate parts of the sector as: “Lazy, inefficient, dishonest, dirty, complacent and exorbitant.”

How things have changed. Quality has improved leaps and bounds in the food business and until recently more people than ever were eating out.

That was, of course, before the coronavirus crisis. Now there’s the prospect of “distance seating” and fewer diners being charged more – and that’s if establishments are allowed, or can afford to open. Right now it’s difficult to predict the future.

Written before the pandemic, the book is a fascinating story of how we have always gone out to eat, from the ancient Romans in Pompeii to the luxurious Michelin-starred restaurants of today.

One relatively new aspect of today’s dining scene is the rise of food bloggers. UK Instagrammer, Clerkenwell Boy, (and yes, he lives in the area) is said to have some 200,000 followers.

It’s a far cry from before the war, when eating in restaurants was mainly restricted to a privileged minority.

Sitwell describes the food business as a hobby, a passion and often a calamity. It requires wide-ranging skills. “Between a restaurateur and a chef, or the two combined, it takes ingenuity, acumen, creativity, technical expertise, design or artistic sensibility, accounting sense, literacy, people skills, public relations proficiency, marketing know-how, negotiating talent – and it helps if you can cook.”

After the war Peppino Leoni, the founder of Quo Vadis in Dean Street, Soho, drew a menu with just three courses.

“War and rationing had considerably shrunk the English stomach,” he later told his biographer. Nobody wanted a five- or six-course dinner. “What people wanted was well-cooked food, attractively presented in relatively small portions.”

In the old days olive oil was only available in small bottles at the chemist. Avocados were not even a pipe dream.

Some London restaurants, though, were a little more accessible. Leoni’s featured recipes for some of its classic dishes and sauces on the back of its menu.
In the late 1950s Hungarian food writer Egon Ronay hit out at poor quality in his first guide, which sold 30,000 copies.

Elizabeth David, author of A Book of Mediterranean Food

He probed railway cafés, provincial hotels and motorway service stations. The food provided at one service station was described as “pigswill”.

Elizabeth David may have brought a dose of romanticism to the nation with her 1950 A Book of Mediterranean Food. She spoke of French country cottages with wooden beams hung with fragrant herbs, markets where boxes swelled with ripe tomatoes, families who gathered around tables to devour rich cassoulets and vibrant salads.

Charles Forte began stalking London’s streets until he found an empty shop in Upper Regent Street. With money raised from friends, relatives and a very reluctant father, he opened the Meadow Milk Bar. By 1938, he had five West End milk bars.

In 1947 Forte opened his first of several large London cafés at the old Lyons tearoom at Rainbow Corner in Shaftesbury Avenue.

His premises were always clean and modern. But there was another aspect to them. As the Methodist Recorder journal noted in August 1948: “Throughout the organisation, there is a clear anxiety to serve the customer in the fullest sense.”

Albert Roux’s Le Gavroche had won two stars from the Michelin Guide in 1974 and 1977. Diners entered through a door in Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, and descended to the dining room in the basement.With little natural light and certainly no views, all the focus would be on the food and service.

Albert employed Marco Pierre White, 21, who had made the journey from West Yorkshire with just £7.36 left in his pocket, a small box of books and a bag of clothes.

At Le Gavroche White learned that a kitchen could not be run without discipline. “Discipline is born out of fear,” he wrote in his autobiography.

He opened his own restaurant in Wandsworth Common, called Harveys. He built a reputation as a fiery cook. Sitwell writes: “Chefs were dispatched as often as the menu changed, and there was White, the brooding, long-haired, moody rock star.”

White set another generation of chefs on the road to success, each of them later merrily recounting tales of how they had survived his kitchen.

Today, the British food landscape is shaped by some of the men who learned under his unique style of mentoring: chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Phil Howard, Bryn Williams and Jason Atherton.

People seek out restaurants as a place to meet, socialise, do business, romance a loved one, plot a coup. Being hungry is an assumed pre-requisite.

The future of dining out will doubtless mirror the present, writes Sitwell. There will be new food concepts, new cutlery, space-age environments, and new-fangled digital booking systems.

“But there will always be a place for simplicity. While some fantasise of merging science with ingredients, others will still have a dream about opening a little place with a small kitchen, a modest, seasonally changing menu, a functional wine list, cheerful staff, and the buzz of conversation and laughter. I’ll take a table for two in that one, please.”

  • The Restaurant: The History of Eating Out. By Simon and Schuster, £25

Writer’s retreat

William Sitwell’s self-isolation book choice…

  • A Town Called Alice by Nevil Shute: I’ve become obsessed with Shute and have been devouring his books in recent weeks. He makes heroes of ordinary people, tells beautiful love stories and envelopes you in his wily narrative that is always laced with the most extraordinary know-how of machines… read An Old Captivity but be wary of On The Beach, which is not a good idea if you’re feeling gloomy.
  • Any Human Heart by William Boyd. One of my favourite novels. It’s the story of a life in which the narrative develops and changes in style as the narrator grows and changes. I think it’s an enormously powerful story and just so vividly real.
  • Jeeves (or Blandings Castle) by PG Wodehouse. I love PG Wodehouse. He has the power to transport the reader to a world of perpetual English summers, barmy characters and very, very funny moments.

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