Brenda Assael, “On Dinners and Diners and Restaurant Culture in Late Nineteenth-Century London”


Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Newnham-Davis’s Dinners and Diners, published in 1899, provides a lively and valuable introduction to the restaurant in late nineteenth-century London, an aspect of Victorian metropolitan experience that has been largely overlooked by historians. This article uses Dinners and Diners to explore three aspects of Victorian metropolitan culture that are dramatized through public eating: first, the centrality of cosmopolitanism; second, the relationship between changing gender roles and new forms of urban sociability; and third, the significance of the theater and theatricality in late-Victorian culture.

Photo of Newnham-Davis

Photograph of Newnham-Davis

The pioneering journalism of the Pall Mall Gazette has long been credited with the creation of new forms of urban spectatorship and subjectivity in the late-nineteenth century (esp. Walkowitz City).  In 1897, the editor of the journal, Douglas Strait, commissioned a series of restaurant reviews for a readership whose tastes varied widely and for whom nothing short of “a formidably long list of places” would suffice. In selecting an author for this series, Straight sought someone who would be “a thoroughly experienced, trustworthy, and capable commissioner, who would deal with the task entrusted to him in a pleasantly mixed anecdotal and critical spirit, while at the same time supplying useful guidance to persons wanting to know where to dine and what they would have to pay” (Newnham-Davis viii).  His choice was to be Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, a retired army-officer and, at that point, editor of the Man of the World, a penny paper preoccupied with “Society,” the stage and the racing world. Newnham-Davis had, at one level, a fairly conventional military career.  A lieutenant-colonel at the time of his retirement, he joined the East Kent Regiment (the legendary Buffs) directly after leaving Harrow in 1873 and served in the map iconZulu campaigns of 1877-9, as well as in the map iconStraits Settlements, map iconChina and map iconIndia. He spent the last three years of his time in the army in the Intelligence Department in map iconSimla. However, while resident in India’s most well-known hill station, he became involved in amateur theatricals, a penchant that continued in his civilian life (he was a regular performer in the plays that accompanied the annual map iconCanterbury Cricket Week festival) and ultimately extended to authoring a number of plays and ballets, most notably Lady Madcap, produced at the Prince of Wales’s Theatre in 1904 (“A Versatile Soldier”).

Each of the articles written by Newnham-Davis for the Pall Mall Gazette involved a visit to a particular restaurant, a discussion of his fellow diner (presented as a real-life personage, although it is possible these were fictional or composite characters), and the menu and cost of the bill. Extended versions of these articles were eventually collected, after “very many requests from various quarters,” in an anthology entitled Dinners and Diners: Where and How to Dine in London, published in 1899 (Newnham-Davis viii). The appearance of Dinners and Diners speaks to the importance for middle-class readers of dining as an aspect of the urban experience at the end of the nineteenth century. By contrast, historians have given relatively little attention to the restaurant, choosing instead to focus on a range of other forms of urban spectatorship and performativity, encompassing the music hall and theater, fashion, the department store, the courts and streets (Nead; Bailey; Breward; Rappaport; Walkowitz, City). Some recent interventions have shown a promising interest in the restaurant, notably the single chapters dedicated to the subject in, respectively, Rachel Rich’s analysis of food and dining as an index of social expression among the bourgeoisie of London and Paris and Judith Walkowitz’s cultural history of map iconSoho (Rich; Walkowitz, Nights Out), but the topic remains largely unexplored in the existing historical literature. Conversely, studies of food in the Victorian era have surprisingly little to say about public eating, focusing largely instead on cookbooks, dining in the home, gentlemen’s clubs and great chefs (Humble; Beetham; Colquhoun; Cowen). Dinners and Diners was certainly not the only contemporary survey of restaurants. Restaurant reviews featured regularly in newspapers and journals as diverse as The Daily Telegraph, Leisure Hour and trade journals such as The Caterer.  However, the book allows us an entry point into the diversity of the dining experience in late-Victorian London and shows how dining can illustrate broader issues of identity in the metropolis. In particular, it highlights the necessity of appreciating the significance of international and cosmopolitan elements within nineteenth-century British culture, and also reveals how the restaurant adds an interesting dimension to recent historical discussions of gender and space in the modern city. The symbiotic relationship between the restaurant and the theater is another important motif in Dinners and Diners, and offers further demonstration of theatricality as a means of understanding British culture beyond merely the stage.

To some extent, Newnham-Davis worked within the paradigm of the flâneur, articulating a form of privileged urban spectatorship which imagined the city as a site of sensory stimulation. However, Newnham-Davis’s flânerie was not merely about visual spectacle—the oft-cited male gaze (Pollock; Tester)—but also about other bodily pleasures, most obviously those connected with eating. Moreover, the more discursive and fantasized elements of the flâneur’s progress through metropolitan spaces are here less significant than the materially grounded aspects of urban exploration. A total of forty-seven  dining establishments feature in Dinners and Diners drawn from geographical locations across the metropolis. Most, to be sure, were in areas of the West End well-known for dining out, such as map iconPiccadilly, the Strand and Soho, but Newnham-Davis and his fellow “devoted soldiers of the fork” also paid visits to restaurants in map iconHolborn, the City, map iconthe East End, map iconEarl’s Court and map iconRichmond (Newnham-Davis 254). Many of the restaurants were prestigious dining rooms such as map iconSimpson’s, the map iconCafé Royal, map iconKettner’s or the high-end dining rooms of up-market hotels, such as the map iconHotel Cecil and the map iconSavoy. However, Newnham-Davis’s culinary compass also extended to more modest establishments, including taverns such as map iconThe Ship in map iconGreenwich, and more idiosyncratic experiences, such as visits to map iconGoldstein’s, a Kosher restaurant in Bloomfield Street in the City, and the dining room of the House of Commons.

The diversity of locations was matched by a similar pluralism of cuisine. Newnham-Davis’s reviews did include the archetypal London chop house, here personified by the venerable Cheshire Cheese with its assembly of robust English fare (stewed cheese, pudding, bitter beer and punch), implements (pewter tankards) and décor (the sawdusted floor, the long clay pipes on the window-sill and a pile of Whitaker’s almanacs that put “a touch of colour into a dark corner”) (12-13). But elsewhere in the book, we encounter a more cosmopolitan dining culture in terms of cuisine, staff, décor and fellow diners.  Significantly, many of these places served French food, which suggested its dominance in this period, although this was not exclusively the case. True, the more prestigious establishments had a strong French element, whether in the language used on the menu or the food on the plate. But serving French food or displaying French menus did not preclude the existence of other national cultures in the restaurant. While map iconRomano’s offered standard French fare and had a menu written in French, it was owned by an Italian, as the establishment’s name suggests.  On his visit there, Newnham-Davis had an extended discussion with a certain “Signor Antonelli” who draws the former’s attention to the existence of a “pretty Japanese room on the second floor” that was used for banquet dinners (28).

Even the unimpeachably French elements of London dining were not quite what they seemed. For instance, the legendary restaurant director, M. Joseph of the Savoy, who succeeded César Ritz, is revealed by Newnham-Davis to be born in Birmingham (albeit of French parents). Moreover, the kitchen staff of the Savoy also included Smiler, a curry cook from India with whom Newnham-Davis converses in “bad Hindustani” (82). Newnham-Davis’s time in India appears to have made him unusually alert to the presence of both people and dishes originating from the subcontinent. When one of his uncles nicknamed the Nabob offered that “there is no good curry to be had outside the portals of his club,” Newnham-Davis retorts by insisting that he himself has “eaten good curry at the Criterion, where a sable gentleman is charged with its preparation” (59).  At the Hotel Cecil, Newnham-Davis and his uncle, having summoned the curry cook “clothed in white samite, and with his turban neatly rolled” to their table where he was put through an examination about his art, once again in Hindustani, then proceeded to dine on “a genuine Indian curry” and “chutnees galore” (61, 63). Among the individuals who feature in Dinners and Diners are several famous foreign-born proprietors, such as César Ritz and the Gatti brothers (all Swiss), as well as Frenchman Daniel Nicols.  Encounters with foreign-born proprietors, waiters and kitchen staff, while rendered anecdotally in Dinners and Diners, actually reflect a more sustained cosmopolitanism in London’s restaurant culture, which, in turn, was grounded in a genuinely international labor market. Contemporaries regularly commented on the abundance of Germans among restaurant staff, but they were by no means the only national grouping present. Adding an additional international dimension to the dining experience was the presence of foreign diners. Dinners and Diners registers, among its cast of dining characters, at least one American actress (330), “two gentlemen, who from their speech were Australian” (164), a party of South African stockbrokers (77) and “an Indian prince, the first swallow of the dusky, jewelled flight that comes each summer to our shores” (76).

The complex cultural formations that were created by these overlapping international elements—which parallel aspects of nineteenth-century culture noted by a number of recent studies (Walkowitz ”Vision”; Schneer; Nava; Anderson; Agathocleous and Rudy)—are neatly demonstrated by a typical Newnham-Davis anecdote about a particularly uncooperative fellow diner. The author’s companion at the map iconBlue Posts in map iconCork Street was an “old gentleman” who normally resided in the countryside and whose unapologetic Francophobia had not merely ever prevented him from traveling to map iconFrance, but had led him to dislike the French “on principle” (46). Wisely, Newnham-Davis decided to take him to an establishment with the reputation “of being one of the very best places where old-fashioned British food is to be obtained” (47). However even here it was not possible to escape the broader cosmopolitan currents that were shaping London’s restaurant culture. For its décor of stained glass windows and doors and its wallpaper of “quiet artistic shades” call to mind, at least for Newnham-Davis, “one of those small restaurants where the Parisian art of cooking is cultivated” (47). Newnham-Davis was pleased to see that the bill of fare contained not a word of French (“sauce tartare excepted”) and the food satisfied his companion’s preference for “solid English dinners” composed of haunches of venison, saddles of mutton, great capons, sucking pigs and “turkeys almost as big as ostriches” (48, 46).  The old gentleman was distressed to discover that his food was being served by a foreign (in this case, German) waiter but was immediately assuaged by learning that the individual in question, Frank, had fought the French, presumably during the Franco-Prussian War (50).

If the story of the old gentleman suggested that the choice of one’s dining companion was sometimes dictated by reluctant obligation, Newnham-Davis often enjoyed more convivial company. In particular, he frequently shared his meals with women, and while his descriptions of these female diners are often patronizing, or even infantilizing, their presence in his book tells us something about the increasingly dynamic and diverse forms of sociability that were emerging in the late nineteenth-century metropolis. Newnham-Davis did dine with male acquaintances and some of the venues he discusses clearly encouraged masculine homosociability, even if they did not explicitly exclude women. However, one often gets the sense that Newnham-Davis dined in these all-male environments by default, rather than through an act of preference. His account of dining with an “American Comedian” at the map iconHolborn specifically refers to the fact that the two men did not have “a lady to take out” (15) and they entertained themselves during their meal by viewing, and speculating on, the identities of a panoply of diners at other tables that included “a merry little party of three ladies” (18) and “a pretty actress” (20). Indeed, Newnham-Davis, a bachelor, delighted in female companionship. Mixed male/female dining in Dinners and Diners is often an extension of familial ties. Newnham-Davis took his sister-in-law to the Café Royal while his brother was out of town. On other occasions he observed “a white-bearded gentleman” dining with his “two pretty daughters in evening dresses” at the map iconCavour in map iconLeicester Square prior to an evening at the theater (208), while at the map iconStar and Garter in Richmond he spied “a bald-headed gentleman entertaining a family party” (200).

However, most of Newnham-Davis’s female dining companions were friends, either married or single, with whom he enjoyed sharing gossip, especially from the world of the London stage, but also from the high society of New York, Paris and the Riviera. Likewise, his descriptions of other mixed dining parties encompassed two young men “with orchids in their buttonholes” dining with two young women (possibly, Newnham-Davis speculates, the groomsmen and bridesmaids from a wedding party) at the Holborn (18-19); a theater manager dining with “one of the most beautiful of our actresses and her husband” at the Savoy (76-77); “a cricketer of fame” dining with two ladies at the map iconHotel Continental (125); “a fat gentleman,” who Newnham-Davis speculates is a Jewish financier, “giving dinner to a girl with many rows of pearls round her throat and a glint of diamonds on her dress” at Earl’s Court (192); and “a well-known amateur coachman” having “time to give his wife something to eat before going off to catch another train” at the Cavour (207-8).

Studies of gender and space in the late nineteenth-century metropolis, notably those focusing on female shoppers in the West End, have emphasized the anxieties that often accompanied public discussion of the increased presence of women in public spaces that had previously been monopolized by men (Rappaport; Nead; Nord). There is an occasional fleeting reference in Dinners and Diners to how similar concerns were exhibited in regard to restaurants. Newnham-Davis makes reference to a ladies’ dining room at Simpson’s, and we know that there were several female-only dining spaces in London at this time, intended not merely to reassure women who were concerned about male harassment in public spaces, but to encourage female autonomy in the era of the campaign for women’s suffrage. There is no doubt that female diners, no less than female shoppers, were obliged to negotiate urban spaces where their presence was novel or even unwelcome, or where their relationship to broader codes of respectability was to be questioned. Particular notoriety attached itself to cabinets particuliers (or private dining rooms in some restaurants) where it was possible for men to make (either welcome or unwelcome) sexual advances on their female dining companion, the imagined possibilities of which were most famously explored in H.G. Wells’s scandalous novel of the new woman, Ann Veronica.

However, “moral panics” surrounding female diners are notable by their absence in this period.  Newnham-Davis refers to the map iconBerkeley in Piccadilly as being “a place where ladies can dine and lunch without an escort” (164), but his reference to the unchaperoned status of his fellow diners is made without the apparent need for comment. Similarly, after dining with an American actress, a certain Miss Belle, at map iconEpitaux’s in the map iconHaymarket, Newnham-Davis seems to welcome, rather than disapprove of, the ability of young women to enjoy London’s restaurant world, with or without male escorts (333).  Our historical understanding of women and urban spaces has often been compromised by the difficulty of escaping from simplistic binaries, whether between male and female, or between the domestic and the public. London’s restaurant culture, at least as represented in Dinners and Diners, suggests the need for a more nuanced approach. The dining room was an intermediate space between private and public domains, exposing the diner to the gaze and scrutiny of strangers, but also allowing the extension of domestic and familial sociability outside the home. Moreover, it suggested an increasingly complex world of heterosociability, in which a growing female presence outside the home was associated, not with anxiety, but—more positively—with an appreciation of the rich and complex fabric of metropolitan society.

A significant proportion of the female diners who feature in Newnham-Davis’s book were stage actresses. Indeed, Dinners and Diners illustrates the close, and symbiotic, relationship between the restaurant and the theater in late-Victorian London.  This relationship was not only materially grounded (not least in the physical proximity of dining rooms and theaters in the West End), but also operated discursively, in that theatricality was as much a feature of the dining room as it was of the stage. Drawing on literary studies (most notably the pioneering work of Nina Auerbach, Elizabeth Burns and David Marshall) scholars of Victorian London have demonstrated an increasing interest in the commonalities between theatricality on the stage and in social life. In particular, the increased provision of gas lighting turned “the London streets into a stage. . . . Gas created enchantment and illusion; it made the lives that it illuminated seem ‘staged’ and unreal” (Nead 98).   Peter Bailey’s study of the music hall reveals how popular theatrical performances—notably that of the “swell”—corresponded to new forms of selfhood and performativity in the metropolis more broadly (101-127). By contrast, the restaurant has been excluded from these new historical understandings, ironically, given the regular and intimate juxtaposition of stage and dining table. Newnham-Davis often observed that his fellow diners might include both performers and theater-goers. For instance, at the Cavour he noted “first to the feast comes a sprinkling of actors and actresses, making an early meal before going to the theatre. Then comes an incursion of white-shirt-fronted gentlemen and ladies in evening dress, dining before going to the play” (Newnham-Davis 207). Given the need to eat immediately prior to (or, less frequently, immediately after) a performance, restaurants were clustered around Leicester Square, the Strand, Piccadilly, Soho and other parts of the West End theater district. Some restaurants, such as the Savoy, Romano’s, Kettner’s and map iconPagani’s, were regular eating haunts for those in the world of theater, not merely for actors and actresses but also theatrical lawyers, playwrights and agents.

Architecture and décor added to the sense of commonality between the restaurant and the theater. Newnham-Davis’s descriptions of many West End dining rooms call to mind the lavish interiors of opera houses and theaters that often stood literally next door. For example, the grill-room at map iconFrascati’s was “a gorgeous hall of white marble, veined with black, with a golden frieze and a golden ceiling . . . as gorgeous as a pantomime transformation-scene” (220).  Having made one theatrical analogy, he then makes another. Noting that there was “gold and silver everywhere,” he details “gilt rails to the balcony, which runs, as in a circus, round the great octagonal building” (220).

As in the theater, spectatorship was a fundamental aspect of the dining experience, not just in regard to the set-like décor but also in terms of one’s fellow diners. In the company of his sister-in-law at the Café Royal, Newnham-Davis is given a table that “commanded a fine view of the room we were in” (212). Just as in the music hall, mirrors allowed the individual diner to match their own self-presentation against that of the other people present in the room. Such manifestations of dining room performativity were often made to the accompaniment of music. Some of the restaurants Newnham-Davis frequented, such as the Holborn, had balconies accommodating a small orchestra that played light classical music. In the restaurant, clothes, whether the colorful uniforms of wait-staff or the lavish dresses and headgear worn by female diners, functioned as costume.  Indeed, some diners coordinated dress with décor for maximum effect. Mrs Daffodil, on Newnham-Davis’s advice, chose to wear a black, as opposed to a white, dress for her birthday dinner at the Princes’ Hall in Piccadilly since it was a better match for the white, gold and red mouldings of the restaurant’s grand salon (2). The flamboyant and self-dramatizing personalities of chefs, managers and proprietors added an additional element of theatricality. M. Joseph, the director of the Savoy, recalled, for Newnham-Davis’s benefit, the occasion on which he cooked a dinner in the presence of “some of the great lights of the theatrical world” (notably Sarah Bernhardt). He asserted, “as it is the art of actors and actresses to make an effect on the public, he wished to show them that there could be something to strike the imagination in his art also” (84).

The common discursive rubric (and shared material culture) of the restaurant and the theater reveals the extent to which the restaurant was fully integrated into, and helped fashion, a wider urban culture. London’s late Victorian dining culture offers a valuable comparison to  other times and other places in which the restaurant served to dramatize contemporary political, social and cultural identities (Spang; Swislocki).  The international and cosmopolitan aspects of public eating, and the dramatization of changing gender roles that played out at the dining table, similarly demonstrate the value of the restaurant as an index of broader metropolitan identities. Dinners and Diners may be a modest book, but the fact that it remains in print (in both hard copy and online format) is testimony to its lively ability to capture the spirit of the times in which it was written. More significantly, it reveals that by giving full and proper consideration to the restaurant as a feature of metropolitan culture, we can gain a fuller and richer understanding of the dynamic and complex texture of the late-Victorian world.

Brenda Assael is the author of The Circus and Victorian Society (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005). Her book, The London Restaurant, 1840-1914, a project that has been funded by a Large Research Grant from the British Academy, will be published in 2018 by Oxford University Press.


published March 2012

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