So as one does I started delving into archives of old menus, from the cafe restaurants of our youth and before to those early fine dining establishments that we went to if we had the cash for a special occasion.
We soon forget, yet some things are very obvious in those periods, how the posh restaurants insisted in printing menus in French which hardly anyone understood and resulted in calling the waiter over and stabbing a finger at what one thought was a dessert to be snootily told it was a vegetable and then having to cringingly ask for advice on what was available in that section, only then for the waiter to, still snootily, repeat the offerings in French with an English translation for the proles.
When they started to put English translations underneath the French version it was the last throw of the dice in pretentiousness.
I remember well the first time I took my to be wife for our first proper meal, lunch at Rules, London's oldest (1794) restaurant:
Having done my ‘homework’ I ordered the Châteaubriand and settled back on the banquette to peruse the wine list. I knew very little about wine in those days apart from my initiation into the intricacies of German wine labels, so when the wine waiter came calling I ordered the Rudersheimer Rosengarten and the wine waiter said ‘good choice’; a kindly man under the circumstances because it was anything but.
In those days fine dining was for the other people. We had the first signs of chain restaurants in the likes of Bernie Inns and others, it made a change from the plastic cheese roll under a glass dome cooking quietly on the pub counter.
I remember Woolworth had a rather good cafe, it was only when researching this I discovered just how comprehensive their pre-war menu was:
Apart from an early attempt at the bottom of the menu to garner feedback, the other item of note is the amount of meat products on the menu and ‘lobster salad’, in Woolworths!
Higher up the scale, this menu from Wheelers The Ivy gives another insight into how the other half ate in the Fifties, still clinging to the French language and a preponderance of meat and fish dishes. Good to see the old favourites up there, the potted shrimps and prawn cocktail, so derided since but making a comeback now:
Menus from other posh eateries abound and none are posher than Buck House. A Queen's menu from 1906 shows nine courses and again plenty of protein; naturally at this moment in time the menu is again in French. Magnums, quite rightly, of champagne for Derby Day: they must have had a tip.
The great ocean liners that dominated transatlantic travel and vied for national pride with elegance and speed for those first class passengers and made sure they never went without during their voyage.
Eight courses at the Captain's table, I bet that went down well - I’ll get my coat...
All things are relative to the age but sometimes there are surprises on these menus in that what are considered delicacies today and have a price to match, were not so in days gone by. Oysters and foie gras were cheap and plentiful, as two examples; lobster as on the Woolworth's menu was available almost everywhere as were ortolans; today you struggle to find decent whelks.
The one below I actually remember. Although the fare is similar to the others a couple of items stand out: tripe and onions, and marrow bones; long time since I saw those two on a menu.
Today we are used to buying products that are cheaper than in the past because of modern big farming techniques and international trade, but not everything works that way. This wine list from a Cunard liner in 1927 shows the price for a bottle of Chateau Latour at 12/6; £1 then equates roughly to £44 today, making that bottle in today's money around £27 and that is a restaurant price; today a bottle of Latour retail would set you back in the region (depending on vintage) of £400-600 a bottle. You really could drink yourself to death in style for very little money then.
And when did you last see a seafood menu like this one? - and while you are perusing the menu, do not play with the candelabres:
But today those whole plates of steak have disappeared, we are presented with artistically arranged plates of very little for very much. At least the Argentinians know how to cook and present a steak - all vegans look away now…