When we’re looking for somewhere to dine out, we often use a website, such as Trip Advisor (others available, of course), but did you know that something similar existed in the 18th century? Well, today’s guest, who I am delighted to welcome, is historian and biographer R. M Healey. He has also written and contributed to many books, journals, newspapers and magazines, during a long and varied life, including working in various museums and art galleries in the UK. With that, I’ll hand over to him to share some of these reviews with you.
Reviews of eating and drinking establishments are rare in any newspapers and magazines of the Georgian era. However, the idea was taken up in 1815 by the journalist George Rylance in his very extensive survey, The Epicure’s Almanack, a recent edition of which was edited by Janet Ing Freeman.
Here is a selection of the best descriptions of eating and drinking resorts taken from a ‘Review of Taverns, Inns, Coffee Houses and Genteel Eating Houses’ published anonymously in the New London Magazine in July and August 1788. Oddly, although she pays tribute to the many manifestations of similar reviews in earlier books on London, Ms Freeman neglects to mention this particular magazine’s earlier survey.
Brentford Eights, an island in the Thames off Brentford
This is rendered famous for pitch-cock eels. It is likewise celebrated for a very favourite Dutch dish called Vater Zuchee. This dish is composed of perch, parsley-roots and vinegar, served up in a deep dish, with slices of bread and butter. The visitors of the Eights, in gormandising this dish, have no occasion for any other knives and forks than what nature has given them. It is common to eat with digits only.
If any stripling of fortune, whether a coxswain of a barge, or the supercargo of a post chaise, wishes to be indulged, he may be served here with zouchee to the amount of eight shillings a head.
Marlborough Coffee-House, Bond Street
Lord George Gordon used to say that this house was excellent for good fish. Do they purchase it off Philips—the Carnaby-market Cat—the best of all anglers? The frequenters are fashionable, the fare is of the best quality, nor can ever the guests repine at summing up the total of their entertainment.
New Spring Gardens, Chelsea
This is a foreign house where indeed, to do them justice, they dress all kinds of French dishes remarkably well. They have very good French and Portuguese wines. Their tevel is delicate and their red port strong and genuine, without the fiery aid of British brandy. This house is a bumper every Sunday, in the tea and ordinary style. The prospect from the pleasure ground is perhaps the richest rural view of any. In the fore-ground are the verdant lawns of Pimlico. In the side and backgrounds, St James’s Park, Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s stand proudly pre-eminent. The service is neat, the entertainment good, the bill very moderate indeed! Excepting in rich eating and rich drinking, it is a complete rus in urbe.
Guildhall Coffee- House, King Street, Cheapside.
Frequented by all classes of luxurious citizens. Aldermen, Deputies, Common Councilmen, Gentlemen of the Long Robe attending the Courts, with a variety of others whose interest in pleasure leads them near the city senate. Here you may lodge and board —or you may dine in private, aux prix raisonable. Rich soup is made here in the season, which the lawyers devour as eagerly as their briefs. The Port is good and the Sherry most excellent. It is, indeed, pretty plentifully distributed to the neighbouring cits*. Sometimes the lawyers and common council gill it in a morning; and Pownall’s cellar has caused many a citizen’s question to be carried, and many a doubtful cause to be won. The address of Mr Pownal, and the attention of Mr Pugh give pleasure to all it’s (sic) visitants. The bill is very moderate.
Red Lion Inn, Hounslow.
A good house for post-chaises, good horses and good beds. There are two gardens belonging to it that are very pleasant for a solitary or a tête-à-tête walk. The larder is not variegated, but what it contains is of the prime. The port wine is good, and the tea and coffee excellent, nor should the clotted cream be forgotten. It is unadulterated, although chalk may be had very reasonable. The bill is very moderate for the western road, and the attendance prompt and pleasing.
Spread Eagle, Strand.
Long noted among the society of the humorous and intelligent. The rooms are here remarkably spacious. Indeed, they are in stile. As to the bill of fare, it abounds with every article in the season, from a mutton chop to a bustard or John-dory. The wines are all pure and well flavoured. If there be any preferable to others, it is the sherry and the port. The master and waiters are as civil and patient at four in the morning as at eight in the evening; and the prices of the various articles are very moderate.
Pitch-cock eels are here in the utmost perfection. Being in the vicinity of the palace, it is ever frequented in the summer months, by the great, the dissipated and the inquisitive. The apartments are airy, the bill of fare is rich and diversified. The wines are all excellent. If the bill appears stretched sometimes, strangers cannot much repine, as they have always the best of everything for their money, and likewise the utmost alacrity of attention. The guests would rather pay a guinea at the Toy, from experience, that fifteen shillings for the same fare any where contiguous.
Click on the highlighted link which will take you to Part Two
Today, young and monied men about town will no longer find local fish dishes being served on Brentford Ait, a long, narrow island in the Thames, lying opposite Kew Gardens and Brentford High Street, which is now just a greensward. However, Eel Pie Island, further downstream off Twickenham, got its name by offering similar fishy fare in Victorian times and became a trendy hot spot in the swinging sixties. Incidentally, it is slightly worrying to read that parsley root was an ingredient in Zucher Zee. Back in 1788, when the Thames was less polluted, the deadly poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort (cicuta virosa) would have grown profusely along its banks; and in the annals of toxicology there are numerous cases of ignorant people mistaking the roots of this dangerous plant for parsnips. Many died horrible deaths. Let’s hope no cooks on the Brentford ‘Eights’ made the same mistake.
*A cit in Georgian slang was a ‘townsman ‘who traded. We would certainly like to know more about Philips, the ‘Carnaby-market cat’.
Not surprisingly, all of the eateries described have long vanished, although some of the buildings have survived. The Red Lion in Hounslow High Street, which Dickens knew, was flourishing (much changed) at least until the 1930s. It is now a Barclays bank. The original Toy inn, possibly dating from the time of Henry VIII, once stood close to the Hampton Court palace gates, where one of its regular customers was King William the Third. In The Epicure’s Handbook (1815) the Toy is described as being ‘on a larger scale than the King’s Arms, and the charges, we believe, are rather higher, but the fare is such to leave you no shadow of cause to repine at the expence ‘. By 1840, however, it had become ruinous, and it that year was reconstructed, relocated and renamed ‘Ye Old Toye’. It was still doing business until recently, but now seems to have closed.
Eagle Tavern and Coffee House near Somerset House formerly Bath and Liverpool Hotel. YCBA