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Bygone London Life: First Chapter

I. Old-Time Restaurants

1. An Elizabethan Ordinary

In the windows of old-fashioned inns in English market-towns may still be seen notices to the effect that an ordinary is held within at noon or at one o’clock on such and such a day every week; but the ordinary is no longer a London institution. Public dinners in the metropolis, at a fixed price and at fixed hours, are now all dubbed with the French name, table-d’hôte, and the good old English term has disappeared; but in country towns, especially those where farmers congregate on one or more days of the week, the ordinary still flourishes, and the ordinary is the bucolic table-d’hôte.

In the time of Queen Elizabeth this system of dining all-comers at a set hour, at a fixed price, was of very recent introduction, and the proper thing to do was to dine at an ordinary. For humble folk there were plenty of cookshops, and these abounded in the streets and passages that led out of Fleet Street. One of these passages, Ram Alley, which gave its name to a once popular play, was famous for its eating-houses. “The knave thinks still he’s at the cook’s shop in Ram Alley,” says a character in Massinger’s New Way to Pay Old Debts; and another dramatist speaks of the savoury smell that greeted the passers-by in the alley.

Many of the more fashionable ordinaries flourished in the neighbourhood of St Paul’s Cathedral—the grand old building destroyed by the great fire of 1666. When eleven o’clock sounded on the cathedral clock the busy throng of gallants and well-dressed idlers who crowded the nave of the great church, exchanging greetings with acquaintances and showing off the bravery of their apparel, began to melt away, and by half-past eleven no person with any pretension to fashion remained. The hungry and unfortunate creatures who lacked the price of a dinner stayed behind to “dine with Duke Humphrey,” while their more fortunate brethren filled the ordinaries in the streets hard by the cathedral. Dinner was usually served at noon, and the preliminary half-hour was spent in conversation, exchange of the “divine weed” in the shape of snuff, recital of adventures, and so forth. All the news of the town was talked over, the last new play or poem discussed, and scandal invented and circulated.

The table at an Elizabethan ordinary would appear to be but barely furnished according to more modern notions. Its equipage consisted of little but knives, spoons, salt-cellars, and pieces of bread. Table-forks did not come into use until the third or fourth decades of the seventeenth century, and only then in the face of many protests from sticklers for old ways and customs, who took for their motto, “Fingers were made before forks.” Even in Pepys’s time the guests at a Lord Mayor’s banquet were expected to bring their own forks, the festive board being laid with knives only.

The “ordinary” dinner was usually of the good old substantial kind; but at some of the more expensive houses, where foreign fashions were imitated, French and other “kickshaws,” as more vigorous John Bullish diners called them, could be obtained. Guests did not sit down promiscuously. Their positions at table were assigned according to rank. A great salt-cellar stood in the middle of the board, and those highest in rank sat on either side of this symbol of dignity. The rest of the guests arranged themselves in due order, taking the salt-cellar as the standard, those lowest in rank being farthest removed from that potent receptacle.

A good dinner could be had for a shilling, but there were ordinaries at threepence a head. Dekker describes a threepenny ordinary as one “to which your London usurer, your stale batchelor, and your thrifty atturney do resort.” The rooms were very crowded, and the business of eating was taken very seriously. Dekker, who did not love lawyers, says: “The compliment betweene these is not much, their words few, for the belly hath no ears; every man’s eie heere is upon the other man’s trencher, to note whether his fellow lurch him or no; if they chance to discourse, it is of nothing but of statutes, bonds, recognizances, fines, recoveries,” and so forth.

At the twelvepenny ordinary the company was choicer—knights, courtiers, and gallants rubbed shoulders with templars, justices of the peace up from the country, and gay citizens with money in their pouches, who wished to cut a dash with the fashionable young men from the Court. Here, as soon as dinner was over, the proper thing to do was to fall to gambling, with dice or cards, until the time arrived to go to the play or other diversion.

In the course of this hour or two of dining and card-playing much wine and tobacco were consumed, and much money changed hands. Country squires and Justice Shallows who came to town for a frolic often had good reason to regret the dinners at the ordinary when they returned home with empty pockets, and their estates more or less heavily “dipped,” for gambling debts must be paid whatever other creditors may wait. The money that many a sober, thrifty citizen gathered together by dint of hard work and steady attention to business through long years was dissipated by a thoughtless, spendthrift, would-be fashionable son in an “ordinary” gambling-hell in the course of a few weeks or days.

Dekker takes occasion to school a gallant as to his behaviour at the dicing table of an ordinary. “You must not sweare in your dicing,” he says, “for that argues a violent impatience to depart from your money, and in time will betray a man’s neede. Take heede of it.” The true gambler will sit patiently and play to the bitter end: “Dice yourselfe into your shirt; and, if you have a beard that your friend will lend but an angell upon, shave it off and pawne that rather then to goe home blinde to your lodging.” The proprietors of ordinaries did quite an extensive business as money-lenders, advancing cash to the gamesters on the security of swords, clothes, or any other pledges that could be procured. In the cant of the day things so pawned were said to be in “tribulation.” These pawn-broking ordinary-keepers would also give persistent gamblers almost unlimited credit for the sake of the business they brought to the house. “Further, it is to be remembered, he that is a great gamester may be trusted for a quarter’s board at all times, and apparell provided, if neede be.”

Naturally enough, the ordinaries were infested by sharpers and cheats of all kinds. To them the dinner was merely a preliminary to the business of card-playing and dicing, when they might enjoy the process of plucking a “gull.” “Gulls,” usually young men of fortune and no great wisdom, were systematically sought out, enticed to the ordinary, and there carefully and thoroughly despoiled by gangs of confederate cheats. Greene describes how some of the sharpers, when they heard of the arrival in town of a possible “gull”—a young man, son of a citizen or squire just dead, who had been left “ten or twelve thousand pounds in ready money, besides some hundreds a year”—would lie in wait for him, would discover what “apothecary’s shop he resorts to every morning, or in what tobacco shop in Fleet Street he takes a pipe of smoke in the afternoon,” and, getting into conversation with him, would lure him to an ordinary, and so to his doom. Some of the rascally fraternity would pretend to be his friends and offer advice and occasionally advance ready money; but the end was always the same—the pigeon was plucked, and the rooks secured the plunder. The “gull,” in his turn, when reduced to penury, would often take a hand in the plucking of others of his own class. Many of the Elizabethan ordinaries, in fact, were simply gambling-hells of the worst type, in which the dinner was a mere introduction to the real business of the hour and place.

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