Eating Chinese in late 1940s Soho

Forwarded to us by a loyal jot watcher. One restaurant was favoured by celebrities - Johnnie Mills, Bobby Howes, Coral Browne, Sandy Powell, Ivan Maisky and Lady Cripps - probably impressive names in their day. I especially like the bit about Lord Tredegar bringing his own jade chopsticks...

Stanley Jackson’s brief but brilliant Indiscreet Guide to Soho is crammed with so much colourful reportage on the immediately post-war night life, petty crime, Bohemian characters and restaurants in this popular quarter of London, that it is difficult to choose what to Jot down. In the end, I opted for two pages on Chinese restaurants. Jackson attributes our ‘craze‘ for eating Chinese to our sympathy for the nation’s stand against the ‘Jap Fascists‘, but the trend must surely pre-date this.

Incidentally, what happened to the redoubtable ‘Ley-On’s ?’

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I once met Anton Mosimann

Another 'once met' jot - this from tireless jotter RMR. He reminds me there was anthology of such meetings edited by Michael Ondaatje (with David Young and Russell Banks) called Brushes with Greatness (Toronto, 1989). Many of the contributions are Canadian but there are one or two superstars (John Lennon, Muhammad Ali, Dalai Lama, Jayne Mansfield). They solicited contributions for a second volume but so far it has not been published.

Anton Mosimann

It was just before Christmas 1998. The brilliant Swiss chef had recently opened a swanky new restaurant in the heart of Belgravia . I wanted to see this, but, I was more looking forward  to discussing with him the six thousand cookery books he had amassed —one of the finest collections in private hands—and most of which had recently installed into his Mosimann Academy in trendy Battersea. And there was always the chance of a free meal….

Some hope. There was no food on offer, but I did get a coffee, which was very, very good. I sat in the restaurant drinking it while waiting for Mosimann to turn up. While I sipped I gazed up at the framed menus from around Europe that adorned the walls from top to bottom. I waited, and waited…

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A menu from 1913

This menu was found among the archives of the London businessman Ernest B. Rubinstein, an amateur playwright and theatre critic in the early decades of the twentieth century. Rubinstein was also the father of Patricia Rubinstein (1915 -2003), who later wrote acclaimed children’s school fiction under the pseudonym Antonia Forest.

It was through her father’s interest in the theatre that the young Pat became familiar with English Drama, particularly Shakespeare, to whose plays, among others, Rubinstein took his daughter. Theatre came to play a significant part in Forrest’s fiction, and it is likely that the Marlow family of her books took their name from the author of Dr Faustus.

The Rubinstein archive also contains a number of theatre programmes, many devoted to much lighter drama and operetta, which suggests that the Rubinsteins were regular West End theatregoers. As the accompanying menu offers a 'Theatre Dinner' among its modest, rather than sophisticated fare, it is likely that such  dedicated playgoers as the Rubinsteins were more interested in fine drama than fine dining . Although the restaurant is not named, it may have been one of the many cheap eating places that catered for the less well heeled theatrical crowd, including, presumably actors and singers, which would have been another reason why the stage struck Rubinstein could have chosen it. The restaurant may possibly have been a Lyons Corner House, a chain of cheap restaurants that started up in 1907.

It is interesting to note how fashions in eating have changed in a hundred years. Although most of the dishes would still be available now, though perhaps not on the same menu, others have disappeared entirely. Anyone for 'poached egg on anchovy toast' or what about 'scotch woodcock' ? I was surprised not to find oysters, which were still cheap back then, but we do see 'caviare on toast' for a shilling, which can’t be  bad. However, the five course 'Theatre Dinner' for a mere sixpence more is an even better bargain. Some things, however, don’t change. Eating-house owners still make their biggest mark-ups on cups of tea—in 2013 I reckon an outlay of £4 on tea would generate a gross profit of around £80.In 1913, a pot at 3d (1.5p),would make a commensurate mark-up. [RMH]

Little Inns of Soho – the Koh-i-Noor

From a small book Little Inns of Soho (1948) this review of one of the few London Indian restaurants at that time.

The book is by Penelope Seaman (daughter of Owen?).

29 Rupert Street
Telephone GER. 3379
Closes 11 p. m. Open on Sundays till 11 p. m. Unlicensed.

From vegetarianism to Indian food seems rather a long step. But many delicious Indian dishes are made with a vegetable base, such as dhal (of lentils, onions and curry sauce) and, of course, all the various accoutrements that go with a good Indian curry. Pickles and chutney are difficult to obtain nowadays and one substitute used consists of strips of onion flavoured with red pepper. One very delicious chutney is made from onions and mint. Bay leaves are also frequently used for all flavourings.

There are some four Indian restaurants in the West End of London; and the Koh-i-Noor is one of five run by the brothers Vir in Great Britain. Krishna Vir, who comes from Delhi, looks after the London, Cambridge and Brighton restaurants and his brothers run the ones at Oxford and Manchester.

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Le Matelot (London restaurant run by a psychiatrist) 1955

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A review of the Le Matelot restaurant found in Bon Viveur's London & the British Isles (Dakers, London 1955). Bon Viveur was a pseudonym for Fanny Cradock and her husband the fly-whiskered Johnny. They later became celebrity TV chefs. The use of the word gay at the time tended to indicate merry, jolly, insouciant, zany etc., although the restaurant went on into the 1960s (possibly later) and is referenced at The Lost Gay Restaurants site. The girl in the coral jeans and exposed midriff sounds distinctly modern and the whole scene described might be something out of the 1961 Tony Hancock movie The Rebel. The owner roaming the restaurant in horns is not something you see in current London eateries.


You will either be enchanted by this small restaurant or embarrassed. It is unique. The proprietor, Dr. Hillary James, is a psychiatrist by day and a restaurateur by night.

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