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High Street History: Restaurants

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

Do you fancy a quick bite? Look around you - there are stories hidden in the walls.

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Unlike pubs, it’s not likely that you’ll find restaurants that are very old and have retained their original features. Even restaurants that date to before the Second World War are fairly uncommon, whilst eateries like Rules in London (1798) or the Buttery in Glasgow (1856) are extremely rare. But the point is that restaurants are good indicators of changing fashion because they change hands quite often, or they occupy buildings that may have contained something very different in the past.

The British love affair with ‘eating out’ is quite a recent historical trend, but even in the last thirty years the country has moved from a slight scattering of (loosely-termed) Chinese or Indian restaurants to a generous and more diverse spread. This may well be tribute to how quickly, on occasion, social patterns can shift.

Cafe with 1940s features   Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Café with 1940s features

Preserved here is very good example of a 1940s café. Although under new ownership, the adverts for ices and teas (with the original prices) have been well preserved. There is an art deco feel to the steel window frames, which was very much of the time. It is always worth seeing what original features of restaurants have been kept intact.

Etched glass in cafe Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Etched glass

Etched glass was a common way of advertising an establishment’s plus points. It may still be seen in places – even when the older concern has passed on. The language employed can give clues to the things that past customers believed valuable or attractive. Here, we might still thirst for ‘London’s Noted Cup of Tea’, or be impressed by ‘Quick Service’, but how many cafés would nowadays make a virtue of ‘Civility’?

Mughal Palace Restaurant  Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: The Open University

Mughal Palace

Another example is shown here of shifting social patterns. Tandoori restaurants are one of the great success stories of the last forty years of British dining, and this one has set up in a nineteenth century building that used to be a public school.





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