‘If you are prepared to pay French prices you can get as good (French) food in London as in Paris,’ writes Sam Lambert in his intro to the 8pm ‘Dinner Out’ chapter of 1954’s London Night and Day. In those days, it was unthinkable to compare British food with any other nation’s cuisine – France was the benchmark. Where France has the edge, says Sam, is in cheap but drinkable wine. They might have been drinkable, but in 1950’s London a bottle of wine would cost about 15% of a working girl’s weekly wage. However, the ‘iced lagers and bottled beers of Bass and Worthington are supreme’. Well that’s all right, then.
Belle Meunière, 5 Charlotte Street W1
1954: ‘Décor near modern white walls, pink lights, pink carpets. Bar at the back. Doorman. Waiters white-jacketed. Very good food cooked personally for you (escalope maison, viane de boeuf biane, crêpe suzette). A la carte about 15s. Personal service from proprietors Mario and Gaspar.’
2017: Everything has changed except for the ‘very good food’ part.
La Balle Étoile, 17 Frith Street
1954: ‘Worth cultivating for the best reasons – it’s unpretentious, the food is very good and definitely inexpensive (try first their escalope de maison, with properly cooked vegetables, only 4s), and the waiters are sympathetic and, what is rare, cheerful.’
2017: Ceviche features Peruvian cuisine. ‘Our DNA is centered around food, art and music,’ says their website.
Boulestin, 23 Southampton Street WC2
1954: ‘Ornate, elaborate red and very good. Monsieur Bolestin was a famous gastronome who wrote widely telling the British how not to eat. You are likely to do yourself more than well here for they understand food. Don’t hurry over dinner. A carafe of vin rosé is 18s 6d.’
2017: That’s £19.20 in today’s money. And the restaurant? Now owned by Capital and Counties, a property company seemingly intent on taking over much of Covent Garden and filling it with high-end this and premium that. Mind you, with a carafe of rosé costing about 10% of the average weekly wage back in 1954, not that much has changed.
Akropolis, 24 Percy Street W1
1954: ‘One of the true homes of the Moussaka, always in season (it needs marrows and aubergines). Bright and noisy.
2017: Zenith Media.
‘A table for two for tonight, please’
‘I’d like to book a table for two, please, for tonight’
‘I think you have wrong number’
‘That’s not 24 Percy Street? You’re not Akropolis? You don’t have the moussaka?’
‘No, is Zenith’
‘My guide book must be out of date. Sorry.’
Crete, 19 Percy Street W1
1954: ‘Greek. Has become one of the two best Greek restaurants. The red vin ordinaire is very drinkable and cheap at 14s 6d (it’s Beaujolais villages).
2017: French. Has become one of the best French restaurants specialising in burgers. The red vin is also very drinkable but a bit pricier at £20 (it’s Marius Chapoutier).
Père Auguste (Le Châtelain), 37 Gerrard Street
1954: ‘Monsieur Auguste, white goatee’d and alert, will recommend (if you are a man) the pâté maison and cold veal and ham pie, both specialities. Excellent cold table as well as French menu; décor, Cole’s red-striped wallpaper, style edward VII. Londoners with long memories will recognise this as the one-time Villa Villa.’
2017: Londoners would have to have especially long memories to remember this as anything other than a Chinese restaurant, it being slap-bang in the middle of Chinatown. Three stars on TripAdvisor. ‘Nothing special.’ ‘Decent enough.’ ‘Was shot dead by waiter.’ OK, I made that one up.
Martinez, 25 Swallow Street W1
1954: ‘In the Andalusian Sherry Lounge the sherry wagon will be wheeled round to your chair. Restaurant on the first floor. On the way up you run the gauntlet of Spanish paintings. Upstairs it’s all tiles, fountains and a bull’s head. Another place where they make a big effort with the wine. A glass at 2s is by English standards stupendously cheap. Menu is in Spanish and English. Try tortilla, it’s very typical.
2017: We’ve gone from the hills of Andalusia to the pampas of Argentina, leaving sherry way behind. You can still get a glass of wine but the price has gone up by 6,500%. Sorry.
Reggiori’s, 1 Euston Road NW1
1954: ‘Try Reggiori’s for breaths of Edwardian nostalgia. Here, but for the absence of gaslight, is the atmosphere – mosaic floor, flowered and ornamental tile-and-mirror walls, brass hat pegs like spiders… Light fittings are like the old Pullman cars, gas jets still visible. Red plush settees, tables resplendent with cruets (silvered, with spaces for six articles of condiment). Reverend and old world, the waiters are Poles, Czechs, Italians and Swiss Italians. Mr Capponi will be at the till at the far (we do mean far) end, and if you are really interested he may let you go and look at the fountain. Edgar Wallace was a regular here.’
2017: “O what we ben! And what we come to!” laments Riddley Walker, lead character in Russell Hoban’s eponymously-titled novel set in a ravaged, post-nuclear English countryside. OK, so a garish amusement arcade standing on the site of an Edwardian-style restaurant doesn’t exactly signal an end-of-days decline, but it’s the first time in this blog that I’ve felt any real sadness for what we’ve lost.