In October 1945, I started work in Soho Square in London. I was paid £2.25 a week which was above average for a school leaver. However, I had to control expenditure. After travel expenses and paying for my keep at home, I had to find somewhere cheap to get some lunch. I found the place a hundred yards away in Charing Cross Road. It was the “Victory” Café located between the Astoria and the corner of Oxford Street. You can imagine that the name “Victory” was quite popular at the time.
In the restaurant or café, everything was basic. The décor and the seating comprised what was available at the time. It was all new and the tables were covered by Formica. The whole frontage was open to the elements. There I could get two sandwiches and a cup of tea for 2.5 pence.
After a while I discovered a British Restaurant. It was located on the north side of New Oxford Street on the corner of Red Lion Street, near the junction with High Holborn. The building looked like it might have been a large bank at one time. It had a very high ceiling and was sizeable seating area.
Restaurants in Britain, at that time, were not subject to rationing. This meant that the wealthy could “eat out” and save their rations. Because of this, restaurant charges were limited to five shillings for meals which could not include both meat and fish.
The British Restaurants, like the one I found, provided an eating place for those with little money, but were also patronised by people who might also go to a restaurant. The menu was that good. British Restaurants were run by the local authorities, who set them up in various premises such as schools and church halls. As I have said, I am sure ours was in a former bank. They developed from the London County Council‘s Meals Service which originated in September 1940 as an emergency system for providing meals for those who had been bombed out. Less than a year later, the London County Council was operating 200 of these restaurants.
From 1942 to 1944 there were around two thousand British Restaurants in operation around the country. There one could have a choice of soup, a main course and a pudding with a cup of tea. The soup would have been tomato, potato or vegetable or even Brown Windsor for which the following is the recipe:
Ingredients: 1 quart of bone stock (1.1 litres) 1 carrot 1 onion half a turnip a little gravy from roast beef, if possible, or about a teaspoon of Bovril. Salt.
Bring the stock to the boil. Cut the vegetables into matches or small dice. Put them into the boiling stock and boil gently till tender, add any good gravy there may be, or a little Bovril and, if necessary, a few drops of browning to make it good rich colour, but not too dark. Season well and skim. Serve with little dice or toast handed separately.
Of course, we did not get offered the toast. The main course would have been roast beef or mutton with boiled potatoes and green vegetables in season. The pudding would be plum duff or apple pie. The whole meal cost a shilling (5 pence). I could afford that, but not every day.
That post-war publication suggested that one could be offered the horse meat in a British Restaurant. Yeah, right !. No-one was that hungry. Even then it was against the law to offer horsemeat without notice.
From the Movietone Years Podcast: Episode one – “My first days at Movietone”
Next Chapter: Chapter 22: The Cottage Loaf