British Restaurants

During the early part of the war, the government decided, in the interests of both health and morale, to empower local authorities to operate low-cost restaurant facilities. These dining establishments, known as British Restaurants, were usually located in existing municipal premises, although in some towns, temporary buildings were erected. The provision of meals was not restricted to residents of the local authority, but available to all, and when dining in these establishments one could not help feel a great sense of community.

They were to be non-profit making but had to break even and not be a charge on the ratepayers. The decor was basic in the extreme – after all, there was a war on -and many fellow citizens were eating in far less congenial circumstances.

Trestle tables, covered in what was
known as ‘American’ cloth, usually in a red check gingham design, and floors fitted with drab coloured battleship-quality linoleum were the order of the day.

The type of food served could best be described as good, plain, honest grub, extremely nourishing, with no frills – similar to the food dished out at the inn-keep-er’s ‘ordinary’ of 100 years ago.

A typical luncheon would consist of brown Windsor soup, boiled cod, mashed potatoes and cabbage, followed by Victoria sponge and custard. The cost was about tenpence (old money, of course), with a mug of tea or coffee as an optional extra. Although this may appear to be a screaming bargain, it should be borne in mind that those in wartime days, and until 1949, the maximum permitted price for a meal in any restaurant or hotel was five shillings. Nevertheless, at tenpence it represented sound value and many people took advantage of this facility.

One queued up, military style, with plates in hand, to be served by matronly ladies who doled out food from behind a counter full of steaming dishes. Needless to say, smoking was permitted in all areas and it was not unknown for an odd length of fag ash to drop into dishes while the food was being served. It is, of course generally acknowledged we were a much healthier nation in those days.

With the ceasation of hostilities the local authorities were allowed to discontinue this service, but were permitted to keep it going, on the understanding they did not incur losses over any period of three consecutive years. Many continued to operate until the early 1960s, but by this time, expensive bureaucracy had appeared in many town halls, and the ever-increasing overheads which were loaded on to the British Restaurants, made it uneconomic for them to continue.

Alan Thomas, Wakefield