Victorian Restaurants in Liverpool was something of a rabbit hole I found myself down this week when I was doing some food history research for a feature I’ve long wanted to write about: the traditional dishes of Liverpool (spoiler alert: one of them is Scouse).
Before long I was reading the menus of Victorian restaurants in Liverpool. You might remember I enjoy going through the old newspaper archives when I’m doing social and family history (which despite what you might think is not as tragic as it sounds). Like the time I wrote ‘Emma: Forgotten Lives’ where old reports from the popular local newspaper of the time Liverpool Mercury gave me a meaningful social backdrop to the life and times of my great aunt whose story I was researching.
Victorian newspapers are mad; one minute they’ll have a long rambling column reporting a gruesome murder and then with an almost imperceivable distinction between news and advertising, an advert for combs or recipe for homemade cough mixture as though it was a news item.
Adverts are fussy, describing dining rooms as “the handsomest in town”, “grand”, and “elegant” and often chocker with unnecessary information – Victorian restaurants would often fit their whole menu into an advert.
Typical Victorian restaurants
In the mid 19th century, Victorian restaurants weren’t for everyone. Not like they are today, more or less accessible depending on your budget but regardless of perceived class. They weren’t even called restaurants. Roughly speaking, you might expect a town or city to have:
- Cook shops
- Inns and taverns
- Dining rooms
In those days, when only rich people had full cupboards at home, you might typically find a Cook Shop in working class areas (sort of the equivalent to a cafe) where you could get soup or cheap meat and bread to eat in or take away.
Next, there were inns and taverns (don’t forget, respectable ladies wouldn’t be seen dead in an alehouse/public house and the Liverpool police force of the day were absolutely obsessed with trapping or chasing potential sex workers out of pubs), somewhere between a pub and a hotel in purpose and appearance and often on historical stagecoach routes.
If you were travelling, then it was socially acceptable to visit an inn or tavern for a meal – preferably in a private room so you don’t have to consort with the riff raff. Posh people didn’t want to be rubbing shoulders with coach drivers, inn keepers, and local scruffs.
Hotels, often built near stations during the railway age, were suitable places to dine for the wealthier residents and visitors alike. As the 19th century progressed, with more connectivity through rail and particularly in port towns and cities like Liverpool, these would become more socially acceptable.
Dining rooms, for example those found at Gentlemen’s Clubs (as in private members’ clubs not lapdancing gaffs) were for the toffs, and some adverts for Ladies Only dining rooms were examples of Victorian Restaurants in Liverpool, as advertised in the Liverpool Mercury.
Menus from Victorian Restaurants
An enjoyable peculiarity that we’re just not used to today in the internet age, is Victorian restaurants setting out their entire menus in advertising space in local newspapers. It’s a lovely bit of food history that really gives you an idea of what you could order if you were a wealthy merchant in Liverpool who had worked up an appetite at the Cotton Exchange before the advent of Costa Coffee and Pret.
MacAlpine’s, with branches on South Castle Street (not there any more but roughly where the Liverpool law courts are now) and on Old Hall Street in the current business district offered a ‘Shilling Dinner’ in 1877 which in today’s money would be about £4 but in those days could be a day’s wage for some people.
For starters you could choose from Scotch Broth or Pea Soup, both of which have more or less stood the test of time and are still widely enjoyed today – although probably usually at home rather than in restaurants.
Next, you could choose from unidentified ‘Fish’, Roast Beef (sounds nice, probably not much different from modern roasts), Boiled Mutton (doesn’t sound as nice, perhaps a pot roast type dish?), Corned Beef (presumably a bigger deal in the victorian age than we know it as a budget cupboard staple), Minced Collops (which from my research appear to be sort of patties of minced meat – the forerunners of burgers perhaps – served with potatoes and often gravy), and Stewed Tripe (hideous scran).
For dessert they absolutely went to town on the puddings, offering Fig Pudding (like and old fashioned christmas pudding), rhubarb pudding or tart, Sago and Rice Pudding (stuff of nightmares for me), Berlin Pudding (I have no idea what these are meant to look like but I looked into them and they’re made with lemon zest, milk, egg whites and sherry so I was thinking some kind of meringue but then I’ve also found recipes that involve boiled rice and sultanas so I give up). Similarly College Pudding is some stodgy effort for which Mrs Beeton called for breadcrumbs, flour, currants and spices in her recipes. Ice Cream and Blancmange which were both big hits in the Victorian age were also on the dessert menu.
At Anderson’s Dining Rooms on Castle Street (advertised primarily as Merchants’ Dining Rooms to make it clear who their intended customer base was) their 1855 menu offered Mock Turtle Soup (often made with calves brains to imitate real turtle meat) as a starter, a Scottish themed section on the menu entitled ‘Scotch Dishes’ which included the Minced Collops again, Sheep’s Head Broth, and Trotters. All of which I’d give a miss along with the Devilled Kidneys, Curried Rabbit, and Jugged Hare. I’ve never been one for eating anything that looks like a rabbit (my first pet) and I just don’t come from the generation that is fond of eating organs.
However they boasted a pretty full menu of meat and poultry, so you can imagine what a rich diet the wealthy diners had, and strangely on their cheese menu they add, as an afterthought to the Gruyere and Stilton, that they have an excellent Ladies Room so perhaps even I would have been welcome here.
Feeny’s Dining Rooms on Castle Street, in Slater Court roughly behind where Rudy’s Pizza now trades, offered similar fare for diners. The area was close to Exchange Flags where merchants did business, and was popular with offices and Dining Rooms.
Meanwhile, Clayton Square based Whiteman’s New Brunswick Hotel not only boasted a “cheerful Smoking & News Room” and “Night Porter in attendance” but also made a point of specifying what food was available at particular times (joints of meat, 12-5pm) as did Morrish’s Dining Rooms on Tithebarn Street (ice creams at ten o’clock – God only knows if this means morning or night) who also stocked Live Turtle for soup (1s 6d) or cutlets for the same price. Think I’ll stick to the ice cream.