Posted on:Thursday 4th June, 2020
During these ‘difficult times’, war metaphors have proliferated, especially in the UK where recourse to the national narrative of the Second World War is already familiar. Although war analogies may seem compelling, they can also be misleading or just plain wrong, failing to do justice either to the experiences of war or of the pandemic. There may be parallels to be drawn with wartime, but there are also important differences. And in specific areas of social and cultural life, there are some stark contrasts. One of these is restaurant culture, which in the current crisis has effectively fallen off a cliff, with bars and restaurants closed since 20 March. The impact has been especially severe in London where business rates and rents are particularly high. Images of boarded-up restaurants across the city are in stark contrast to the London restaurant scene in wartime, which was vibrant.
Rationing and food shortages form part of the enduring myth of plucky little Britain standing alone. The restrictive 1941 Food Order introduced the ‘five bob’ (shilling) restaurant meal price limit, and the general ‘beigeness’ of the food served by the communal ‘British Restaurants’ was confirmed after the war by the sunshine of Elizabeth David’s post-war recipes, and her loathing for what she regarded as post-war British culinary pettiness. However, the restaurant scene in London thrived during the war, and nowhere more so than in Soho in London, a place already immersed in French culinary culture. Wartime culinary privations mask other stories of plenty and paradox, and this is especially true when we sit down at table with the Free French in wartime London.
After the first few months during the ‘phoney war’ when those who could left London, people slowly drifted back. And customers then stayed, with the grand hotels providing air raid shelters and dinner and dancing continuing despite bombing (a crowded Café de Paris was hit, for example, and Prunier’s also suffered considerable bomb damage). Less grand establishments also thrived, as Stanley Jackson noted in his Indiscreet Guide to Soho, published in 1946 and covering the war years: ‘Rationing brought catering headaches but also prosperity to Soho’s restaurateurs’. Jackson encapsulated the wartime contradictions in his overview:
Today, the restaurants of the quarter (referring to Soho) all feel the pinch of austerity. Chefs sigh for macaroni, olive oil, salamé (sic), cheese, wines, spices, caviare. The 5/- meal limit hangs like the sword of Damocles over every kitchen. Nevertheless, the standard of cooking is as high as ever and a little garlic goes a long way.
Despite all the difficulties, the Soho restaurants are enjoying the biggest boom in their history. Business is so good that even the humblest restaurants in Frith Street have given up letting rooms upstairs for discreet diners à deux. Every inch of space is jammed with eager diners out, desperate for subtle variations on the austerity theme. One Old Compton Street restaurateur told me the other day that he has several apprentices in his kitchen learning the tricks and paying handsome premiums for the privilege. Cabinet Ministers, bishops and even Black Market kings have to ’phone well in advance if they wish to assure a table in their favourite restaurant (p. 68).
In addition to the well-known introduction of the rationing of certain foodstuffs to guarantee supply and a share across the British population, the war, then, brought both limitations and opportunities to the restaurant business. The Food Order of February 1941 which imposed restrictions on meals in eating establishments of all kinds, including the amounts of rationed goods allocated per meal, the number of courses to be served, and which set a five-shilling cost limit on all meals (no matter how grand the restaurant) had the somewhat paradoxical effect of allowing those of more moderate means to eat out. The continued success of fashionable restaurants was also enabled by their relationships with wealthy customers that endured from before the war.
High-end French restaurants such as L’Ecu de France, Le Coq d’Or, Prunier’s, Kettner’s and Boulestin attracted a range of diners, cunningly circumventing the five-shilling price limit with alcohol added to sauces and other ruses, as well as offering music and dancing.
Soho’s often more bohemian restaurants also continued to flourish with L’Escargot, Béguinot’s, Chez Auguste, Au Jardin des Gourmets, Le Moulin d’or, Chantecler, Chez Filliez, the Belle Etoile, Restaurant Albert, Chez Rose, and the Berlemont above the Dean St York Minster pub, finally to become known as The French House much later in the 20th century.
A photograph of de Gaulle and Major General Spears still hangs above the bar, and a copy of de Gaulle’s 1940 legendary call to arms, broadcast from the BBC, hangs on a wall while a myth endures, so often repeated that it has taken on a life of its own, that the Appel du 18 juin was written here. The pub is frequently noted in accounts of the war as the unofficial ‘headquarters of the Free French’. Some of the Free French certainly frequented it and it is one of the locations chosen for a series of Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection photographs, ‘Allied Soldiers Like London and London Likes Them’ which included the Free French in London.
Therefore, a range of French (and sometimes ‘French’ in name only) restaurants welcomed new arrivals come to join the General. The Second World War caused a rupture in what had become known as the ‘French colony’ in London established from the 19th century until the 1930s. A large part of the pre-war ‘colony’ left London on the outbreak of war: young men, many of whom worked in restaurants, were called up to join the French forces before the fall of France in 1940, and two-thirds of the pre-war French community were female, many being young women who re-joined their families in the uncertainties of imminent war. For young women, and for the married French women and children left behind, life could be very difficult. Those who arrived to join de Gaulle were largely young (just under a third were under twenty-one), urban, well-educated, generally not previously politically active (often not eligible to vote before the war whether as women or because of their age), motivated both by rejection of collaboration and by attachment to de Gaulle.
This new, very different set of French exiles was able to attach itself to places already associated with earlier French migrant and exile communities (dating back to the 17th century). The importance of the continuity provided by pre-war French restaurants is revealing for two reasons. Firstly, it indicates the established nature of the French restaurant and food culture in London particularly since the 19th century. Secondly, these restaurants provided essential places for the small Free French community to meet, plan, keep warm and find conviviality away from temporary hotels, hostels, rented flats and barracks. Restaurants, bars and hotels helped create what was essentially an imaginary space originally conceived in London, that of De Gaulle’s ‘Free France’, even if they were sometimes risky and suspect. Colonel Passy, head of French Intelligence Services, was especially sniffy in his memoir about those with nothing better to do than hang about in bars, often filled with spies and those with loose tongues. Contemporary photographs show why he was mistrustful of a place such the York Minster (The French House).
The number of London restaurants and hotels associated with the Free French is nonetheless impressive: the Connaught (favoured lunch spot and temporary home) for de Gaulle, along with the Savoy; the Rubens, Rembrandt, Hyde Park, Waldorf, Grosvenor, Mount Royal at Marble Arch for figures such as Jean Moulin, Captain Rémy, Muselier, Pierre-Bloch, sometimes lodged there by British Secret Services. Historic late 19th and early 20thcentury French restaurants are mentioned in many memoirs, histories, diaries and letters, even when the author is more preoccupied with the military and political history of the time. In her 1957 history of Prunier’s, Madame Prunier, ever the name-dropper, tells us that her London restaurant was one of the favourite restaurants of various European resistance movements; General de Gaulle went there (of course), along with André Diethelm, André Philip and Jacques Soustelle who were all to serve as Ministers under him; as did Pierre Mendès-France (and as had Von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister, before the war). The cheap and cheerful Chez Rose in Soho appears in the personal accounts of both of the great, for example, Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac (Secretary to the Free French propaganda committee in London, and very close to de Gaulle) and of ordinary Free French. The rather dutiful Mlle Claire Toutain, a French woman volunteer, writes that, ‘on Friday, Fifi (Thomas) and I go to Soho to eat horse steak and chips at our favourite restaurant’, as does the lively and sociable Lesley (Gerrard) who much preferred life in the French Women’s Volunteers’ (Corps des Volontaires Françaises) barracks to the training in the British Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Miss Gerrard delights in her ‘French’ status as she indiscreetly wrote to her family on the Isle of Man in 1944, ‘It’s amazing what a difference the French uniform makes – it really gives you glamour! I got off with General Koenig’s driver yesterday – quite unintentionally, I assure you!’ More seriously, she also wrote that she noticed that, ‘wherever we [including with male companions] went in the restaurants, with my being in French uniform, it was me the waiters consulted for the choice of dishes, wines, etc., Everyone seems fond of, and strives to emulate the French somehow. Their opinions as regards food, etc., are much respected. I have gained a good deal of assurance through this, and I’m glad’. A 1946 novel by Mrs Robert Henrey (a Frenchwoman married to an Englishman who as a young woman lived and worked in Soho before the war), The Siege of London, evokes the significance of restaurants for those temporarily exiled in London as they argued ‘strategy and politics’ over a restaurant table, enjoyed the atmosphere of Soho, and found an echo of home at Berlemont’s where aperitifs were served, ‘continental fashion’.
At the same time as bringing a moment of rupture and change in the composition of the French population of London, this very particular moment of the mid-20th century provides a pivotal point that looks backwards to London French restaurant culture established in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and also forwards to the twenty-first. More people ate out in the war than in any other period of British history (although not necessarily for pleasure, and frequently out of necessity), and did not do so again until relatively recently. It was during the Second World War that the groundwork was laid for the cultural and culinary ‘revolution’ of the post-war period which was to mean huge – and increasingly rapid – changes for the restaurant scene in London, and for the place of the French restaurant in it.
The history of the French restaurant in London resides not only in buildings and the reputations of those who worked there or in artefacts and archives, but also in the memories, experiences and imaginations of diners long-gone – hence we may dine out with the Free French in wartime London. It resides also in the memories, experiences and imaginations of diners here in the present – and of those diners yet to sit at the French table of the future.
Many restaurants have survived the current ‘lockdown’ closure so far. The question is how many will survive the re-opening. The one thing that diners can do is to keep faith and to return. As I write this, The French House has raised just over £74,000 of its £80,000 crowdfunding goal in order to pay the rent due on 1st June 2020.
Further food for thought:
Debra Kelly and Martyn Cornick (eds), A History of the French in London. Liberty, Equality, Opportunity, London: IHR Publications, 2013; available open access at: humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/frenchinlondon
Debra Kelly, ‘A Migrant Culture on Display: The French Migrant and French Gastronomy in London (19th – 21st centuries)’; Modern Languages Open, Liverpool University Press, 2016; open access at https://www.modernlanguagesopen.org/.../10.3828/mlo.v0i0.148/
(Forthcoming) Debra Kelly, Fishes With Funny French Names. The French Restaurant in London from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First First Century, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021