What British Restaurants were
One reason why the meals could be provided cheaply
was that the catering, cooking and washing up, etc were all done by
volunteers - normally older women who regarded their input as a contribution
to the war effort. They tended to be members of the Women's Voluntary Service
(WVS) and they wore green uniforms.
In 1941, to combat the severity of rationing in World
War Two, the Government set up what were known as British Restaurants. They were
to sell basic meals at reasonable prices, off-ration.
These British Restaurants were sited so that they were in fairly easy reach
of most families.
British Restaurant buildings
Another reason why British Restaurants were quick and cheap to set up
was because existing halls were requisitioned
for the purpose. Church halls and working men's clubs were typical locations
because they already had basic cooking facilities and tables and chairs.
A working men's club of the sort used for British Restaurants. Photographed at the Black Country Museum.
Purpose-built prefabricated British Restaurant in
Hendon, courtesy of Tony Woods. Our British Restaurant in Edgware was
identical except that the road ran along the long side. What always
struck me was its whiteness.
Where suitable facilities were not available, special pre-fabricated buildings were
put up on waste ground - see the photo.
Our British Restaurant in
Edgware, north London, where I grew up was such a prefabricated building. It was painted white and was on the site of what
later became the public library. My
mother never took me into it, so I am relying on others to explain how
the system worked - see below.
Experiences of British Restaurants
British Restaurants were more like canteens than restaurants.
Customers collected a tray and queued up to receive their food. This was
cooked on site.
Example of British Restaurant tokens, courtesy of Malcolm Johnson. He reports that the top ones appear to be of a more brittle type of plastic than the others and are 3mm thick whereas the others are 2mm thick, There are more and larger examples on his
The top ones from Newcastle seem to be made of Urea Formaldehyde, a thermosetting plastic developed around 1930, which can be in any colour, so is ideally suited to tokens. The bottom ones seem to be the cheaper alternative of cellulose acetate, which is a development of the earlier Celluloid.
In Bury St Edmunds the British Restaurant was set up
in Greene King's brewery yard in Crown Street. It was very popular with
schoolchildren and workers alike. We queued at the entrance with our
old pennies. Then, depending
on the state of our wealth that day we were issued with brown, green and,
I think yellow tokens. One for the main course, one for the 'sweet' and
the other for a cup of tea. I think all three cost
10d, but I cannot recall ever
being in that gourmet range. We sat on long wooden benches and I believe
the tables were covered in American cloth (a fabric with a glazed
or varnished wipe-clean surface). The amply-built ladies who served us
seemed to have had some military training! They wore green overalls, the uniform
of the WVS (Women's Voluntary Service, a support unit for the
ARP) (Air Raid Precautions)).
We occasionally ate at the Edgware British Restaurant
when out shopping. They had some sort of token system for main course and
desert, but my mother always took care of that. There were wobbly fold-up
tables and benches, rather like at school dinners, but there were additionally
table cloths. These were made of American cloth (a sort of waxy/oil-skin
type of material which could easily be wiped clean) and they had check
pattern which reminded me of a draught board.
For the main course, I only recall mashed potato with
minced meat and maybe peas, but I enjoyed the desserts. There was something
like trifle and ‘spotted dick’ (a stodgy pudding with raisins in it), both
served with runny custard.
I went to a British Restaurant in Edgware once but
all I remember was the very runny custard.
It was at the British Restaurant that I discovered
something about why we eat food in the order that we do today. Let me explain.
One day I was in a hurry when I went to the local British Restaurant. So
I got my soup, meat and two veg, and pudding with custard, collected my
knife fork and spoons, and went to a table to eat my food. The soup was
far too hot, the main course was hot, but the pudding was just right. So
I started with the pudding and worked backwards to the soup which was just
right temperature by the time I got to it. I felt as sick as a dog afterwards,
and have never been tempted to repeat the experience again. Obviously we
eat food in the order we do for very good reasons.
During our school holidays we would go to a British
Restaurant. Ours in Edmonton was in the local church hall. We got a main
course, afters, and a mug of tea, all for less than
Civic Restaurants and experiences of them
British Restaurants were renamed Civic Restaurants in 1946, ie after the war ended, but they did not last long. The one where I lived in Edgware was pulled down to make way for a new public library.
There was a 'Civic Restaurant' on Crayford High Street in Kent. I can remember being intrigued by the name,
as at the time, as a boy of 8 or 9, I wasn't at all sure what 'Civic' meant! As it was ‘Civic’ not ‘British, it must have been immediately after the war. The site it occupied was a pre-war two story building with flats above, now two or three shops.
My grandfather, on one of his frequent sorties for something to augment the rations, took me there for something to eat, probably because I continually complained of being hungry! I was there on one occasion only, but the memory of that day is still one of my many wartime and post-war memories!
The place seemed vast to me at the time, although it was probably quite small in reality - plain painted green walls, long tables in two or three rows, and an assortment of old chairs. As other contributors have said, the tables were covered in glossy American cloth, a checked pattern, that I clearly recall. So it may have been a Government issue.
We were served by a lone WVS lady wearing the WVS uniform in dark green - something like 'olive' green or perhaps 'British Racing Green'. There was a red and green emblem on the breast, and I am pretty sure, a belt of brown leather. There was also a felt hat, but I can't remember the exact style, except that it had a brim and was something like a smaller version of the Australian bush hat.
Granddad bought me a sponge pudding with runny custard-which didn't impress me! He sat watching me as I ate it. I think he had a cup of tea and a bun-and a smoke!
This website Join me in the 1900s is © Pat Cryer.