Dining out, dying out
Alexander Larman on William Sitwell’s luxurious history of eating out
Why do we go to restaurants? On a basic level, the answer is obvious. We can be fed and watered in, hopefully, a friendly and welcoming environment for a reasonable price, removing the hassle of preparing and clearing a meal and enjoying dishes and drinks that we would be unable to have in a domestic sphere.
Yet the reason why — until now, at least — restaurants have played such a considerable role in our lives is because they offer conviviality, a sense of theatre and an opportunity to escape from everyday reality. People propose marriage in them, celebrate birthdays and mourn lost loved ones, or save money for months for a one-off experience that they hope will be as memorable as any international adventure.
The recent enforced lockdown closure was a potential death blow to the entire industry. Which makes William Sitwell’s luxurious book both a celebration and an unintentional requiem for what may be a bygone time.
Sitwell’s luxurious book is both a celebration and an unintentional requiem
His central thesis is clear: the history of dining out is also a social history of evolving cultures and tastes. This means that the subjects he writes about range from ancient Pompeii to the growth of the sushi conveyor belt restaurant, encompassing everything from medieval taverns and the French Revolution to the rise of Anglo-Indian cuisine.
It is a broad and impressive spectrum, but perhaps Sitwell has, like some of the less fortunate people he describes, bitten off more than he can chew. His opening chapter about Pompeii is rich in surprising detail (graffiti uncovered outside one tavern when it was excavated ranged from the poetic — “Lovers are like bees in that they lead a honeyed life” — to the crude — “I screwed the barmaid”) and an insightful evocation of the dining culture in Ancient Rome.
He is then, unfortunately, faced with the insurmountable difficulty that the restaurant, as we know it today, did not exist until the late eighteenth century, meaning that his definition of “eating out” has to do some extremely heavy lifting.
There is as much padding in the early chapters as there is around some of his subjects’ waistlines. Much of what he writes is very interesting and often amusing, such as the way in which coffee, first drunk in London around the time of the Restoration, became associated both with health-giving properties and reportedly making men impotent, withered “cock-sparrows”. Yet there are also lengthy sections that have little or nothing to do with restaurants, such as a potted history of the Industrial Revolution.
Nevertheless, when Sitwell finally gets into his stride and begins to write about eateries proper, his authority and enthusiasm are palpable. He describes the dawn of fine dining in Paris in the nineteenth century evocatively. London lagged behind, although gentlemen’s clubs such as the Athenaeum and Reform offered some delights for the wealthy thanks to chefs (French, naturally) such as Alexis Soyer who implemented what one biographer called “the most famous and influential working kitchen in Europe” in 1841, complete with gas-fired stoves, butcher’s rooms and a fireplace devoted to the roasting of game and poultry.
By 1846, Soyer was able to serve “the most sumptuous and impressive meal ever served in England” to Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt, before a later career advising the army on the most efficient ways of feeding the troops.
Sitwell is clearly impressed by some of the great characters of restaurants, from Boman Kohinoor, the 93-year-old proprietor of Bombay’s Anglo-Indian establishment Britannia & Co, to the entrepreneur Charles Forte, the man responsible for transforming postwar London from a dingy desert of creamed spam casserole and sardine with powdered mashed potato to providing decent mass-market food at affordable prices.
Forte, however, was a businessman rather than a chef, and real culinary innovation was left to the likes of the Roux brothers Michel and Albert, who opened Le Gavroche in 1967 and introduced London to high-end French gastronomy at similarly high-end prices.
Certainly, some figures of the London dining sphere have been memorable for the wrong reasons
Slavish worship of all things Gallic (one thinks of Wodehouse’s Anatole, Aunt Dahlia’s French chef, whom others are always trying to steal) gradually evolved into something more eclectic, with talented chefs like Simon Hopkinson and Sally Clarke who could look beyond cheese soufflés and sorbets in favour of simpler Mediterranean fare espoused by Elizabeth David. It is probably just as well, as otherwise many gourmands would have been carried off by rich cream-heavy food long before their time.
Sitwell reminds us that some dining practitioners lose any sense of perspective. In 2003, the chef Bernard Loiseau killed himself because he believed he would lose his third Michelin star for his Burgundy restaurant, and that he would subsequently fall into bankruptcy. It continues to hold three stars to this day.
Keith Floyd warned prospective restaurateurs not to go into the business, saying, with some hard-won experience, “It kills marriages, it kills relationships and it kills life.” Certainly, some figures of the London dining sphere have been memorable for the wrong reasons.
Marco Pierre White, who supplies a glowing blurb for the book, was once seen as the most exciting chef in Britain, but he has long since succumbed to self-parody and the easy money of consultancy and Knorr’s stock cubes. When Sitwell quotes him as saying “discipline is born out of fear”, there is a ridiculousness to his aggression and portentousness that makes him now seem a laughable figure.
And Alan Crompton-Batt, the Egon Ronay inspector who founded restaurant PR, revelled in his uncontested status as king of the long, liquid lunch with easily influenced journalists until his death in 2004 at the age of 50. His brief but bacchanalian life, full of champagne and leggy blonde girls known as “Battettes”, showed that one did not have to be a great chef or entrepreneur to find a place in what was becoming one of the country’s most lucrative and expansive industries.
As, indeed, it continued to be until this year. After a (possibly tongue-in-cheek) consideration of the way in which veganism has become the future of a certain kind of woke dining out, Sitwell ends his book with what may prove to be an anachronistic set of predictions, talking of “new food concepts, new cutlery, space-age environments” and the like, before concluding his own preference will continue to be for “a modest, seasonally changing menu, a functional wine list, cheerful staff, and the buzz of conversation and laughter”.
Yet these predominantly independent places are in trouble in a way that they have seldom been before, and anyone who, like Sitwell, values their continued existence may be at a loss as to how to sustain them. Whatever happens, though, this engaged and entertaining history is a useful reminder of how much pleasure the industry has afforded so many of us.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe