I recently decided to scour the internet for examples of vintage menu designs which have been used at various London restaurants over the years.
My interest in this venture was inspired by a talk I was fortunate enough to attend last year, given by Dr Annie Gray at the Tower Bridge Experience.
Dr Annie specialises in food history, and her talk that evening focused upon the types of meals which would’ve been eaten by folk from different social classes working on and around Tower Bridge during the late 19th century.
Her presentation demonstrated how food history can provide an excellent window to the past; a fun and intriguing way of understanding how our forebears used to experience the everyday.
If you’d been around in London when these menus were on offer, what would you have ordered?
Queen Victoria's Coronation Menu: 13 July 1838
The sumptuous contents from this 1838 menu- listing the dishes on offer to foreign representatives in the City of London attending Queen Victoria’s Coronation- read like the lyrics to Food Glorious Food.
Pigeon pies, tongues and greenhouse-grown grapes were all up for grabs.
Turtle was also on the menu. This was a Victorian delicacy; the establishments which specialised in it would often have large tanks of water in their basement, in which they would keep the hapless creatures alive before their time for the chop came.
The Alpha, 18 July 1889
Opened on Oxford Street in 1879, The Alpha is widely regarded to have been London’s first vegetarian restaurant.
It was established by the American physician, dietician and spiritualist, Dr Thomas Low Nichols who’d fled with his wife to London in the 1860s to escape the Civil War.
Peek Frean & Co advertisement, July 1894
Although not a menu as such, this advertisement lists the extensive range of biscuits sold by Peek Frean & Co.
Peek Frean biscuit company was founded on Mill Street, Shad Thames in the 1850s and, thanks to burgeoning success, they were soon able to open their huge factory on Bermondsey’s Drummond Road which remained operational until 1989.
Peek Frean are still in business today, although you’re now more likely to find their products in the USA and Canada.
Which of their 1890s biscuits would you choose to dunk in your tea?
The Hotel Victoria, 17 March 1897
If you were a visitor to London in the 1890s and fancied devilled fowl or kidneys and bacon for breakfast, the Hotel Victoria was clearly the place to come.
An interesting point to note on this vintage menu are the numerous brand names which are mentioned; Schweitzer’s Cocoatina, Wall & Son’s sausages, Cerebos salt, Lea & Perrin’s sauce and Peek Frean biscuits (see above).
The Adelphi Theatre Restaurant, 20 July 1892
The Gattis were a Swiss-Italian family of entrepreneurs who ran restaurants, music halls and theatres, as well as pioneering the supply of electricity.
Don’t know about you, but I quite fancy the chump chops and apple fritters.
The Victorian Restaurant, September 1900
With weiner schnitzel, Russian borscht, goulash and lokshen pudding all on offer, the fare at this restaurant in London’s east end, would have catered to the palates of the large Jewish community who populated Whitechapel at the time.
Note also the Hebrew print at the top of this vintage menu, plus the wonderful way in which ‘London’ is handwritten.
Lyons Trocadero, 1900
Opened in 1896, this upmarket J. Lyons & Co. restaurant was located on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. Its interior was decorated in a grand, Opera Baroque style and the restaurant remained open until the 1960s.
There are some unusual beverages on this menu; namely egg and milk and iced Bovril with soda. As for food, why not try tongue croquettes followed by ‘tennis cake’?
The Savage Club House Dinner, 28 April 1906
The Savage Club was founded in the 1850s and is noted for its Bohemian style. It is located in Whitehall.
This set menu, from their 1906 House Dinner, is worthy of inclusion thanks to its brilliant cartoon artwork.
Simpson's Grand Divan Tavern, 4 August 1921
The Grand Divan is the main, high-ceilinged dining room in the restaurant more commonly known as Simpsons in the Strand.
The restaurant dates back to 1828; the Grand Divan being a popular venue where gentleman would convene to drink their morning coffee, smoke cigars and engage in lengthy conversation.
As this vintage menu shows, the old Victorian favourite, turtle soup was still on offer at Simpson’s in the 1920s…as were fish balls and ‘thick kidney’ soup.
The Shim Sham Cabaret, 1930s
Named after a dance which originated in Harlem, New York, the Shim Sham club was closely tied with African American culture. Jazz flourished here and the bohemian venue provided a haven for gay people.
The Shim Sham was located at 37 Wardour Street and, as a way of circumnavigating licensing laws, was run as a ‘bottle party’; a way of classifying the venue as a private event in which alcohol had been pre-ordered.
Despite this loophole, police raided the club on 5 July 1935 resulting in prosecution and fines totalling £200; approximately £14,300 in today’s money. Following this action, the club reopened as ‘The Rainbow Roof’.
The Isokon, 19 January 1937
Located on Lawn Road, Belsize Park, the Isokon is a striking 1930s apartment block built in the Modernist style.
When first opened, the Isokon had a communal kitchen. This was converted into a restaurant- named the Isobar- in 1937.
A number of residents who lived and dined at the Isokon were Soviet spies and, during the Cold War, the building was put under surveillance by the British authorities…
The Cafe Royal, June 1942
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, 1943
Still in business today, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off of Fleet Street is one of London’s most famous pubs.
This wartime menu is very basic, with marrow bones, mushroom puddings and tripe and onions helping to provide sustenance under rationing.
London Airport Restaurant, 26 December 1953
As expected, Christmas pudding and mince pies are available on this vintage menu, as is stuffed duck which, coming from Aylesbury, could be considered as locally sourced.
Nowadays of course, airports are like small towns and travellers are spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing a meal.
Veeraswamy, 11 July 1959
Indian food has a long history in London; the first known establishment to offer the cuisine was the Hindoostane Coffee House, which was opened by Sake Dean Mahomed on George Street, Marylebone in 1810.
Veeraswamy, located on Swallow Street (just off of Regent Street), is now London’s oldest Indian restaurant still in business, having been established in 1926.
What’s interesting about this vintage menu from 1959 is that alongside the Indian fare, there are even more English and French dishes; more than enough to warrant a restaurant in their own right! These extensive options were no doubt included for those Londoners still apprehensive about trying chilli and other spices…
Buckingham Palace, 5 June 1961
Maison Prunier, 1966
Considered for many years to be London’s finest fish restaurant, Maison Prunier opened in 1935.
This vintage menu shows what the restaurant offered in the London of the swinging ’60s.
Prunier has since morphed into a Caviar house and can now be found on Piccadilly.
Top of the Tower Restaurant, 1970s
Known today as the BT Tower, the Post Office Tower was London’s tallest building when completed in 1964. Its main purpose was for telecommunications and the tower formed part of a secret network, designed to maintain contact in the event of a nuclear attack.
Despite this, the tower was topped with an unlikely addition: a revolving restaurant which opened to the public in 1966. The venue was owned by Butlin’s who are of course better known for their seaside resorts. One of the most famous people to dine here was Muhammad Ali, who visited shortly after the restaurant first opened.
Sadly, the restaurant closed in 1980 and the tower is now strictly off limits to the public.
London sandwich shop, 1972
Although not a menu in the traditional sense, there is still a great choice on offer in this 1970s bakery… which sarnie- and accompanying snack for that matter- would you opt for?
The Wimpy brand of burger restaurants opened their first UK branch on Coventry Street (located between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square) in 1954. The vintage menu pictured above was used in their restaurants across Britain in the ’70s
In the 1970s and ’80s, the chain’s mascot was a cartoonish Beefeater, inspired by the famous red-uniformed guards (officially known as Yeomen Warders) based at the Tower of London.
The same period saw a boom in fast food restaurants- Britain’s first branch of McDonalds opened in Woolwich, south-east London in 1974, and the first Burger King opened on the Haymarket in 1976.
Even British Rail attempted to get in on the act, forming their own fast food chain- ‘Casey Jones Burger Bar‘, the first of which opened at London Waterloo in 1980.
Mirabelle, 28 December 1980
Mirabelle was an upmarket restaurant based on Mayfair’s Curzon Street. Opened in 1936, it catered to the rich and famous, with Sir Winston Churchill and Orson Welles being amongst its patrons.
Mirabelle was taken over in the late 1990s by gastronomic firebrand, Marco Piere White, at a time when London’s restaurant scene was burgeoning and shaking off its stale image; a trend which- current pandemic aside- continues to this day.
Mirabelle however was sadly demolished in 2017.