Eat for victory: the British Restaurants of WW2
As the hardships of the Second World War began to bite, a new network of public dining rooms was established – the British Restaurant. Bryce Evans explores the story of these healthy, economical establishments, and the lessons they could teach us today
Canteen dining often conjures up negative images. This kind of large scale eating might seem grindingly institutional, evoking the worst memories of school dinners: the eternal smell of cabbage and the misery of wet trays. Yet during the darkest days of the Second World War and the rationing that continued long afterwards, a thriving national network of government-backed communal eating establishments offered not just good-value, healthy food. These British Restaurants were, on the instruction of the Ministry of Food, “centres of civilisation” – spaces for all classes, overcoming the Victorian notion of the public consumption of food as something solely for the deserving poor.
Established in 1940, British Restaurants were state-subsidised dining rooms offering price-capped, nutritious meals to the public. But the story of wartime communal dining in Britain had actually begun more than two decades earlier, in the latter stages of the First World War. In 1917 the Ministry of Food had established the National Kitchen – a network of more than 1,000 large state-subsidised canteens that functioned until 1919.
One of the scheme’s key proponents was the pioneering vegetarian, restaurateur, real tennis Olympic medallist and all-round Edwardian man of action Eustace Miles. Writing in the ministry’s 1918 Public Kitchens handbook, he had stated: “At some future time it will be difficult to believe that each household in the country did its own separate marketing, buying small amounts of food from retail dealers a hundred per cent above cost price, that every hundred houses in a street had each its own fire for cooking, and that at least a hundred human beings were engaged in serving meals that could have been prepared by half a dozen trained assistants.”
That was the old way of feeding the nation. Following the dour, difficult years of the First World War, Miles believed that Britain would surely embrace a brave new world of social eating. And the benefits of state-subsidised communal dining seemed obvious: economies of food and fuel, cheap and nutritious fare, and social cohesion. The National Kitchen network seemed to have made home cooking a thing of the past.
But it wasn’t to last. Along with other factors, the deadly postwar Spanish Flu pandemic helped put paid to mass dining on a national scale, as large gatherings of people were deemed unsafe. Miles’s ideas were also ridiculed by no less than the famous author GK Chesterton, who derided his pioneering nut-based energy bar as “nutter” – the first use of this derogatory term in the English language.
Yet despite the dismissal of his plan as being for the sandal-wearing and the wrong-headed, two decades later Miles’s vision was realised on a much greater and lasting scale with the launch of the British Restaurant system. The name itself was coined by prime minister Winston Churchill, who felt that the term “communal feeding centres” smacked of Dickensian poverty or Soviet monotony. While fulfilling the wartime priorities of patriotism, morale and affordable living, these places also had to be attractive places to visit – as a gastronome and bon viveur such as Churchill appreciated.
In order to overcome an institutional feel, the Ministry insisted on pleasant surroundings featuring specially commissioned artwork: some venues in London even featured paintings loaned from the royal collection at Buckingham Palace. As with National Kitchens, British Restaurants occupied prime retail spaces on high streets, and featured music, flowers and attractive interior design – and regular inspections for cleanliness and food hygiene.
The British Restaurant’s basic remit was to combat food and fuel price inflation – at the outbreak of the Second World War, the UK was importing two thirds of its food – and boost morale through attractive yet cheap mass urban social-eating spaces. After receiving a start-up grant from the Treasury, local governments were responsible for recruiting paid staff and management teams. Each British Restaurant was to be run on business lines, with instructions to turn over a profit or at least break even. There was a degree of autonomy over menus – but not menu costs, which had to conform to the Ministry’s price structure.
Under retail guru and minister for food, Lord Woolton, who had made his name at the department store chain Lewis’s, the state worked with private enterprise – most notably the millionaire Russian émigré Flora Solomon of Marks and Spencer – to ensure that British Restaurants looked and felt like attractive commercial premises. Interestingly, a prominent local supporter of socialised eating was the man later held up as a paragon of entrepreneurial individualism: future prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s father, Alf Roberts, who as town councillor was responsible for bringing a communal canteen to Grantham in 1942.
A balanced diet
When it came to menus, a compromise had to be struck between the Ministry’s nutritionists, who were eager to get British people eating more vegetables, and a general public resistance to healthier fare. So, while the Ministry’s nutritionists attempted to push thick vegetable soups and the “Oslo Break fast” (a version of the continental breakfast), the urge to enjoy comfort food was more pressing. For people suffering the trauma of air raids, it seemed that sausage rolls, fish and chips and chocolate bars were preferable. Eventually, a compromise was struck, with meals devised to resemble the hearty yet healthy “meat and two veg” fare of yesteryear.
In 1941, the Ministry of Information recruited popular music-hall actor Tommy Trinder to promote British Restaurants. His experience was captured in the short film Eating Out with Tommy Trinder, in which his fiancée and in-laws were treated to a British Restaurant meal by the eponymous star. “Look what you get for four and tuppence!” enthuses the relentlessly upbeat Trinder in the film, continuing: “Blimey – they’re giving the stuff away!”
Aimed at working and middle-class housewives at a time when the notion of “eating out” would have seemed the preserve of the upper class, Trinder went on to wax lyrical about the quality of the food, its affordability, and the cutting-edge kitchen technology used to feed people en masse. “Now, look, you eat at home… your one oven cooks for four… this restaurant uses four ovens and cooks for 800 people,” he exclaims. “If all these people ate at home like you do, it would take 100 ovens and 100 times the gas or electricity to feed them. And they’d all be peeling the spuds in the old-fashioned way – but here they’ve got a machine that does it all. In go the potatoes, on goes the switch, and off come their overcoats!”
More like this
For the financial year 1942–43, the net profit for British Restaurants nationwide was £97,500; for 1943–44, it had soared to £170,000
The restaurants gained celebrity endorsements from various other – politically diverse – quarters: writers JB Priestley and Barbara Cartland, to name but two, were enthusiasts. But social eating had its detractors, too. Author Edward Blishen considered British Restaurants “anonymous” places, because of their air of uniformity. That sentiment was echoed by Frances Partridge, a member of the Bloomsbury set, who described her local venue as “a huge elephant house” full of people eating “enormous all-beige meals… beige mince full of lumps, and garnished with beige beans and a few beige potatoes”.
Such sniffy verdicts belied the restaurants’ success. By 1943, these venues were registering impressive net profits nationwide, suggesting both popularity and long-term viability. For the financial year 1942–43, net profit nation wide was £97,500; for 1943–44, it had soared to £170,000 (between around £3.5m and £6m in today’s money).
One reason for the National Kitchens’ decline had been that their prices exceeded cheap tea houses such as Lyons. In 1946, by contrast, the Ministry of Food estimated that a standard British Restaurant meal cost one shilling and threepence (customers paid in cash), whereas the equivalent average price in a Lyons outlet was one shilling and tenpence – significantly higher. And yet, whereas National Kitchens raised the ire of the private retail trade by interfering with the sense of fair play associated with the free market, British Restaurants achieved a much better relationship – harmonious rather than antagonistic – with private food retailers.
British Restaurants represented just one arm of a greatly expanded wartime public feeding network – something that historians have largely overlooked, focusing instead on the success of the rationing system. They were the most eye-catching form of public dining, but also operated alongside other options such as factory and dock canteens, and emergency feeding in shelters. As such, a British Restaurant acted only as an “eat out” option, never a primary food provider: that was the function of the ration book.
At their peak there were 2,160 British Restaurants across the country, most on busy urban thoroughfares. The extent to which the British Restaurant became a high-street fixture is illustrated by comparison to the number of McDonald’s restaurants in the UK today – about 1,300. In frequently citing Churchill’s early dislike for the term “communal feeding”, historians have overlooked his later defence of British Restaurants, “which had served a most useful purpose and should not be allowed to disappear”.
And yet, as was the case with National Kitchens before them, disappear they gradually did. The British Restaurant outlasted the war, but its numbers were already in decline when rationing was lifted in 1954, and few survived beyond this point. This demise was chiefly due to shifting postwar trends in consumer capitalism. “Eating out” – along with the supermarket – became more accessible and normal for the working class, and restaurants serving foreign cuisine grew in popularity.
But perhaps the most lingering cultural blow to British canteen dining was delivered by George Orwell’s bestselling Nineteen Eighty Four, published in 1949. In his novel’s repressive, authoritarian society, Orwell reimagined the popular BBC canteen, where he ate every day, as a subterranean dystopia in which greyish-pink slop was doled out to obedient queues of “proles”.
Orwell’s prose recalled the nagging utopianism in the language employed by proponents of social eating – a rather preachy tone of civilisational ascent echoed in the 1960s by JG Davies, a leading food scientist, who told London’s Royal Society of Arts that home cooking would disappear by the year 2000. Instead, he confidently predicted, “instant” food, pre-prepared and served in large communal feeding spaces, would be the norm, reflecting profound sociological changes.
Davies’s observations attracted the ire of restaurant critic Egon Ronay, who protested that “home cooking will never come to an end – unless the way to a man’s heart is through a pill… if this does come about, I am glad I shall be dead by the year 2000.” Ronay (who died in 2010, at the age of 94) need not have worried. Home cooking has persisted and, by the end of 20th century, and with the postwar rise of individualism and consumerism, it was the notion of communal eating that had become rather passé (though has since enjoyed something of a resurgence, thanks to restaurants such as Wagamama).
Food for thought
There are, though, surely lessons here for the 21st-century UK. Far from a historical oddity, cheap yet nutritious social eating provided a successful way of combating what is today termed “food poverty”. British Restaurants were popular venues appealing across the classes, and there was much less stigma attached to them than that associated with food bank use today. Though it might be assumed that the political left would champion communal feeding and the right dismiss it, the political reception was more nuanced.
Examples of its proponents – from Churchill, to Barbara Cartland, to Margaret Thatcher’s father – demonstrate this. Today’s network of food banks (of which there are about 2,500) broadly equates to the number of British Restaurants at their peak. Yet whereas the basic food-bank model perhaps replicates those of the Victorian era, targeted at the poorest in society, the British Restaurant was instead founded on notions of “Food for All” and the “Right to Food”.
Amid today’s cost-of-living crisis, the UK’s recent history of social eating provides an alternative – and arguably more sustainable – model
Amid today’s cost-of-living crisis, the UK’s recent history of social eating provides an alternative – and arguably more sustainable – model. In other words, an alternative approach to feeding people well lies within living memory. Yet so-called “wartime exigencies” are often quickly forgotten or dismissed – and the experience of communal dining at the British Restaurant is no exception. Writing in her memoir after the war, Flora Solomon reflected that “restaurants existed, and so did communities; but put the two together, and you were introducing a practice so alien to the mentality of the British people it could be likened to replacing the brick walls of the Albert Hall with glass and turning the place into a nudist colony.”
Solomon and others successfully revived a First World War experiment, establishing the British Restaurant as a supplement to the ration book, with tangible psychological and health benefits. Perhaps it might be time to re-evaluate British canteen dining and its Orwellian image problem, and recognise the social and economic benefits it delivered.
Bryce Evans is professor of modern world history at Liverpool Hope University and author of Feeding the People in Wartime Britain (Bloomsbury, 2022)
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine