The Tavern Meal
Inquiring reader: This year I will endeavor to illuminate the lives of regency gentlemen when they are away from their families in a way that (I humbly hope) will add to your enjoyment of reading novels and histories set in this era.
During the late Georgian or early Regency era, restaurants were still a French concept. When not dining at home, an English gentlemen ordered meals in clubs, taverns, coffee houses, or inns. In 1798, a traveler named John Byrne wrote:
A London gentleman steps into a coffeehouse, orders venison and turtle, in the instant; and (if known) a delicious bottle of port or claret: upon a clean cloth, without form, he dines at the moment of his appetite and walks away at the moment, he is satisfied; neither opportuned by civilities, or harrass’d by freedoms; he labours not under obligation, he has not submitted to ridicule, or offended from a want of high breeding.”
These institutions were not always so genteel as described in the above passage. Englishmen had been meeting in clubs and taverns as far back as the age of King Charles II, when the men congregated to discuss political matters. Groups with similar political affiliations (Jacobeans, for example) would assemble in an atmosphere of drinking and conviviality that often turned boisterous and prompted the 17th century poet Ben Johnson to draw up the rules for guidance entitled Rules for the Tavern Academy; or, Laws for the Beaux-Esprits. A reporter of The New York Times wrote in 1879:
These convivial assemblies give an appearance of licentiousness to this period which in strictness does not belong to it. It must be remembered that domestic entertainments were at that time rare; the accommodation of private houses was ill-adapted for the purposes of social meeting; and there only remained taverns and ordinairies for such meetings to be held. Long after the period we refer to we hear of the eminent characters of the day meeting at pastry cooks’, coffee-houses, and taverns. Addisson tells us that most all the celebrated clubs of his day were founded upon eating and drinking, which are points, he says, wherein most men agree, in which the learned and illiterate, the dull and the airy, and the philosopher and the buffoon, can all of them bear a part. He then refers to the “Kit-Cat,” the “Beef steak,” and “October” clubs, whose names imply that neither of them would be averse to eating and drinking. The Kit-Cat was founded in 1700, and was held at the house of one Christopher Kat, a pastry-cook, renowned for his mutton pies. Another club, held at the King’s Head, in Pall Mall, arrogantly called itself “The World,” of which Lord Stanhope (afterward Lord Chesterfield,) Lord Herbert, and other leading men of the day were members, and at which epigrams were scratched on the glasses by each member after dinner. Once, when Dr. Young was invited to the club, he excused himself from conforming to this custom because he had no diamond. Lord Stanhope lent him his, and he immediately wrote: “Accept a miracle instead of wit: See two dull lines, with Stanhope’s pencil writ.” – Some Old London Clubs. Origin of the Social Organizations of the Present Day; From the London Globe, The New York Time, January 12, 1879
One of the most famous and popular taverns in the 18th century was Pontack’s Tavern:
After the destruction of the White Bear Tavern in the Great Fire of 1666 the proximity of the site for all purposes of business induced M. Pontack, the son of the President of Bordeaux, owner of a famous claret district, to establish a tavern with all the novelties of French cookery, with his father’s head as a sign, whence it was popularly called Pontack’s Head. The dinners were from four or five shillings a head to a guinea, or what sum you pleased. Swift frequented the tavern and writes to Stella: ‘Pontack told us although his wine was so good he sold it cheaper than others; he took but seven shillings a flask. Art not these pretty rates?
The Fellows of the Royal Society dined at Pontack’s until 1746 when they removed to the Devil Tavern. There is a Token of the White Bear in the Deaufoy Collection, and Mr Burn tells us from Metamorphoses of the Town, a rare tract, 1731, of Pontack’s “guinea ordinary,” “ragout of fatted snails,” and “chickens not two hours from the shell.” In January 1735, Mrs Susannah Austin who lately kept Pontack’s and had acquired a considerable fortune, was married to William Pepys banker, in Lombard street. Clubs and Club Life in London With Anecdotes of Its Famous Coffee Houses, Hostelries, and Taverns, from the Seventeenth Century to the Present Time, By John Timbs
With time, taverns and inns began to offer more than a mere room for meeting, drinking, and dining, and the difference between an ordinary alehouse and a respectable inn became less apparent. New functions were added, such as overnight lodging, and an increasing number of leisure activities for the community began to be offered: music and dance assemblies (like those in Meryton and Highbury in Jane Austen’s novels), plays, and sports generated as much, if not more income, than food or ale. As their functions increased, these establishments were renovated and became increasingly spacious and well-fitted. Some coffee houses, which often consisted of nothing more than a large room open to the public in a private house, began to “offer accommodation for men, horses, and coaches, along with ‘as good wine (and at as cheap a rate) as can be had in London.’ It was not unusual for coffeehouses to take in lodgers in order to supplement their income.”* In such a case, the line between a public establishment and private house began to blur, especially for female lodgers who might encounter the proprietor’s son or a strange man in the hallway at a most inconvenient time.
By 1800, the men’s clubs in Pall Mall, such as White’s, a former chocolate house, oozed exclusivity. Whether they attracted the working classes or the aristocracy, clubs, taverns, inns, and coffee houses remained largely male enclaves. While women often stayed in inns, taverns, and in coffee houses as lodgers (preferably with a family member or chaperone), they would not meet there to socialize. Indeed, a woman who frequented these public establishments gained a certain ‘reputation.’ “A ‘whore’ was not necessarily a prostitute pure and simple, but a woman who was thought to have violated communal standards of sexual propriety. A sure-fire way of breaking these codes and thus gaining a reputation for immodesty was by frequenting public houses such as taverns, alehouses, or coffeehouses.”*
- *The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergency of the British Coffeehouse, Bryan William Cowan, 2005, Partial Google Book
- The Problems of Being a Publican in 18th Century England, Prof. Peter Clark