East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food

Eating out…

You might expect to find oyster bars in coastal towns, but thanks to faster rail travel and refrigeration they were also quite common in inland towns such as Leicester by the later 19th century – as were fish and chip shops, the staple of the working class ‘fast food’ market. These are just two examples of the growing range of restaurants, cafes and ‘takeaway’ establishments that appeared in response to the rising real incomes enjoyed by many Victorians from the mid-19th century, leaving them with more money to spend once the essentials such as rent, fuel and household food were paid for. Here are a few other examples from Leicester, but all these establishments had their counterparts in towns across the East Midlands.

In 1891, for instance, the ‘Silver Grill’ at the Central Luncheon Bar in Granby Street pointed out its ‘great convenience’ for people who ‘object to lunching at an ordinary public house, and equally as much to patronising a place where neither a glass of wine of ale can be obtained… here a happy combination of the two is found’. The exterior of the Luncheon Bar boasted a large glass acquarium in which ‘among water plants of various kinds, an interesting collection of gold fish, carp etc., disport themselves’. Rather then being potential menu items, the fish were designed to ‘attract the attention of the passer-by’, and although ‘snacks’ of salmon and other fish were served, meat dishes such as chops and steak ‘for which this house if celebrated’ dominated the menu (Leicester – Illustrated, 1891). We are also told that:

The 'well-appointed grill' at the luncheon bar

‘According to the most modern ideas of cleanliness and perfection, these chops and steaks are cooked on a silver grill, by a competent chef, the cooking being performed at the further end of the private bar, on a well-appointed grill… This is, par excellence, the method of cooking chops and steaks and those who have enjoyed them pronounce them to be tender, juicy and very delicious’.

Oysters – a ‘succulent delicacy’ – were also available here, while at the bar patrons could also be provided with ‘fine Burton ales and stout, foreign wines or cigars of the best brands; and altogether the place is one that a hungry man may congratulate himself on having lit upon when seeking to satisfy the cravings of nature’. No doubt this was one of the places where the middle class males of the town talked business, though one does wonder how fit they might have been for an afternoon’s work after lunching in such substantial and convivial style. 

As this extract suggests, however, Victorian social conventions were reflected in who ate where. Ladies who lunched were catered for by cafes like Winn’s Oriental Cafe in the Market Place, serving cold luncheons and soup, and afternoon tea or coffee and cakes; but according to an advertisement in 1897, there were also separate ‘comfortable and commodious smoke rooms’ in the cafe for the men, along with new billiard and chess club rooms and two ‘splendid new Tables fitted with the patent pneumatic cushions’. The cafe stayed open from 10 am – 10. 30 pm, with men and women more likely to be found dining together in the evening.  

Even in the 20th century cafes such as Winn’s were more of an occasional treat for working class men and women rather than a daily resort. One woman recalled that:

Winn's Oriental Cafe in 1897

‘There were endless cafes where you could go in and have a coffee, or tea. It was a thing to go out and have the afternoon tea, and you’d have a nice pot of tea, a little carton of cream, a dish of cakes – and I mean a dish of cakes, it was piled high. You didn’t just have one brought round to you, and that was it. Scones and butter and perhaps cream and strawberries, and you met your friends in town, but of course nowadays I suppose that has gone, and the cafes have closed, because the majority of women went to work’ . (C. Brown, Leicester Voices, Tempus 2002, p35).

Open air cafes are now a common feature of city life, but as the Leicester Guardian noted on 30 July 1904; ‘our insular weather… does not always encourage enterprise in this direction, yet who would not have welcomed an al fresco ice, during the recent tropical spell?… now our bands give periodical performance on the parks, the open-air restaurant might become a part of this very excellent but insufficient institution’.

The Victoria in 1863

Coffee and cocoa houses were popular with both middle and working class patrons in the 19th century. Originally intended for the latter, as a cheap but comfortable and sociable alternative to the pub, they were often established by Quaker businessmen who, as well as advocating and practising temperance, were also importers of the beverages sold in these ‘houses’. There were 12 of them in Leicester by 1901, including the Eastgates near the Clock Tower, the Victoria in Granby Street, and the Highcross on the corner of High Street and Highcross Street, near the Great Central Railway Station. In that year a cup of coffee, tea or hot chocolate, a glass of milk, a plate of potatoes, hot sausages, a ‘Scotch Scone’ or a cheesecake could all be bought for just one penny each, and soup for 2d a basin. Dinners were also served daily, including steaks and chops ‘on the shortest notice’, and at the Victoria a refreshment room had recently been opened in the ‘first’class department… for the exclusive use of ladies’.




    Madeleine April 10th, 2011 at 11:31 am

    I’ve always enjoyed the idea of the coffee houses of olde England and it’s nice to know that ‘ladies’ have been meeting for cake and a chat for so long .. I wonder what they talked about – would be nice to be a ‘fly on the wallpaper’ and the ‘pneumatic cushions’ sound like a diversion – how would they work one wonders, not with the reverberation of a pneumatic drill, I hope!

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A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.