Hi, everybody, welcome to Dance Knows History, we're working our way through the last days of August here in 2020 and our thoughts are turning to the autumn, to the fall.
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We're also making some great documentaries. It's the 100th anniversary of the Mayflower departing the UK. We're talking to descendants of the settlers, many historians will say to the descendants of the Aboriginal American tribe that they encountered with the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a big program planned for that. So it's all happening. So please go and check out history hit TV. It's the new Netflix for history and limited history.
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We're talking to William Sitwell. He's the restaurant critic for The Daily Telegraph here in the UK. He eats for free and then writes funny things about the restaurant and the food. I mean, outrageous, to be honest, but good luck to him. He's written a book now, A History of the Restaurant, and he's got some interesting observations about how and why we choose to spend our money eating out from Pompei to US counterculture in the 1960s. Enjoy.
Thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Well, thank you, Dan, thanks for asking me. This is a heck of a time to be talking about the history of restaurants, because this will get a chapter in future histories. Every restaurant on the planet suddenly closed. I mean, that's not good.
Well, someone said to me that the publication of my book was either the worst possible timing you could imagine or just extraordinarily clever because you could then, you know, have the vicarious pleasure of reading and thinking about restaurants. But it's certainly true that when my book came out, lockdown had was was well and truly, you know, among us and every restaurant in the country, if not the entire world was shut.
So there has not been a time in history when that's happened.
I mean, emperors kings have tried to shut taverns and coffee houses in the past. No one has done it quite successfully, as our current rulers know.
I mean, exactly. It's it's comprehensive. And it's also but as you say, reading a book and being looked at, I mean, I can't wait to get get crowded around a little table where there's too many of us for the table. And as a someone just wax a jug of house wine down the middle and we just start chatting and eating.
I can't wait, but, you know, it is already happening. I went to my column for The Telegraph has started again in earnest, which I'm which is very exciting. And there is a there seems to be a contrast between some restaurants that have redesigned themselves to look like, you know, wards in a hospital where every member of staff is shielded behind a mask and a visor, where there are perspex divides between tables, where your temperature is tested.
And there are a lot of those places. There's a wonderful restaurant down in Suffolk called the Unruly Pig where they've where they do all of that. But then I went to a restaurant in Bridport called the Station Kitchen, the the bar and the kitchen, or in the old Bridport station, master's ticket office and hall. And the restaurant is in an old train carriage that actually used to ferry wounded soldiers to hospitals during the during the First World War. There was absolutely no sign of any masks.
We were all sitting in the carriage eating merrily. I mean, we were on tables for two and there were other tables for four and six. But it was like normal times and it made me quite happy. So I think it depends on the depends on the restaurateur. I think people want to reassure the punters that they're going to be safe. But also I think punters want normality. And as you say, you know, I'm I'm almost yearning to have someone spill wine down me and apologise.
You know, we want to bump into people.
I mean, half the fun is it almost sounds like, you know, a myth. The idea of standing at a bar, waving a note to try and get someone's attention. You know, I dream of the time when I can't get the waiter's attention to get a bill, you know, because there's so many people in these hospitalities about hustle and bustle and it's about atmosphere. It doesn't matter how wonderful the food is in a restaurant, doesn't matter how great the service is.
You know, there's no atmosphere. You know, you go out to, you know, eating out is fun, OK? It's it's there for business. But you need to have a good time.
And if you can't do that, if you feel you're going to the ward of your local hospital, it loses its its reason and people will just stay at home merrily as they have been. Exactly.
Now, you have cited two examples there, like a lot of people say to me, oh, you've got the best job in the world because I get to go and meet veterans and go round battlefields. But you get to go around the country, you've self select. You've got to go and eat amazing food and drink lots of booze for free and then and then write witty things about it. And annoyingly, we're just talking on Zoom. You're very thin.
You're not paunchy. Your skin is good. You know, you don't look like you're about to die of of gout. So it is I mean, you must you obviously very lucky. Is it does the history fascinate you as much as actually doing it in the flesh? Does the history matter to the history of restaurants matter?
I think the history of restaurants does matter. And I love exploring the development of of hospitality. Your first point about having a lovely job. I mean, I took my two older teenage kids to a restaurant and I hadn't seen them for a for a few weeks. And we went on a review and we did agree that this was this is quite a nice way of life for their dad to earn a living, you know, sniffing the wine, thinking about it, looking at the menu, ordering lobster.
I mean, you know, when lockdown began, I. Felt that I was sort of there was so much cholesterol in my veins, I'd sort of overeat and I was quite looking forward to period of it, of sort of fasting, but I did miss it. And it's lovely to get out there. But it's not just the joy of dining out. I do love meeting chefs. I do love discussing food with people who are passionate about it. And that what I love about the subject of food is that if you don't care or you do care.
I find that fascinating. It's a doorway into people's culture. People who say they have no interest. I just find that extraordinary. And you can drill down and realize actually that they do. So it's the most phenomenal subject because it's about politics and culture and happiness and misery and poverty and and, of course, the history. And one of the things I love about the history of of restaurants is, well, two things which are sort of quite contrasting.
One is the extraordinary change and advancement and the story of restaurants that goes to such an extreme that it's about not being hungry. It's about theatre. But then also the story of restaurants is about a total lack of change.
If you go back to, you know, back into ancient history, back to Pompeii, 1879, the hospitality there was thriving in that extraordinarily fashionable Roman Empire City shows that, you know, if you'd gone into the streets, if you'd walked up the main drag, the Via Della on up on Dansa and gone into a tavern, you would have felt very familiar, a very familiar scenario.
So I love the idea that in many ways nothing has changed. But I love the fact that in many ways, you know, they weren't serving back in those days. You know, they weren't creating frosts and smears and copycat shows of this and et cetera, et cetera. But I'm sure there were elements of dining out as theatre as well, probably more unsavoury.
But so you identify Pompeii is important, Rome's importance, and then we don't it seems that the kind of restaurants and and pubs and things become a bit more slightly more difficult to place. And then there's a sort of explosion in the Middle Ages. So it just kind of give it. Can you give me the global history of eating out? What's what does what have you learned from the book?
Well, let me tell you, there's a global mystery, Dan, which is what happened between sort of, I don't know, A.D. 79 demise of Pompeii and the early 15th century in London, where restaurants sort of started to emerge really to sort of support the burgeoning parliament and the the civil servants that were kind of clustering around Westminster, you know, what on earth what happened? Because the scene of the city have been no development for hundreds and hundreds of years.
The Romans were so sophisticated. Hospitality was was was a law, really. You know, when you travelled in the Roman Empire, you were expected to give and receive hospitality and then the Roman Empire of the Roman Empire falls and hospitality seems to disappear with it.
But I suppose the the story of eating out is a story of characters and innovation. And there are moments that for me do start to flag up. No real change. There's a big debate about the the impact of the French Revolution on on dining because at the end of the French Revolution. So the sort of turn of the 18th century, there were some 500 more restaurants in Paris than there were at the beginning. And it's not a coincidence. And one of the reasons and people do debate this, but I think there is a truth in it.
The you know, the revolutionaries, Robespierre, you know, they set about chopping off the heads of the aristocrats. And they all lived in this extraordinary grandeur in their vast chateaus and their enormous apartments in Paris. And you chopped off their heads and it meant that they had a lot of staff without jobs. And those staff, a lot of them went to Paris and started to open kitchens and they did run restaurants. Now, not all of them were successful at running restaurants.
There was Marianne Antoinette's personal private chef actually complained to the government, the revolutionaries, that he lost his job and wanted back pay anyway. He was executed. So that was the very sensible protest of his. But there was definitely this side. You know, there was a new bourgeoisie and they wanted to dine out, and certainly the French Revolution was a bit of a catalyst.
But, you know, the story of restaurants is one that sort of ebbs and flows across the centuries. And as technology improves and travel improves, you see the sort of the tentacles of inspiration appearing in extraordinary places and trends began and they sort of dissipate. So, you know, it's hard to encapsulate and answer your question simply because it's such a vast story. And what about drink?
I mean, are you somebody to restaurants revolve around food or do pubs and ale houses are feature because Britain in particular feels like the delivery of alcohol to the public just feels like such an important part of our national story.
Yeah, it is. And obviously, you know, historically, there was a lot of there was a lot of worry about the gin craze because British Labour, as it seemed, were quite happy to sort of spend all their money at the end of the week on on gin.
And the development of Working-Class Workingmen's Clubs was was sort of hijacked by people who saw them as places where working men could gather and be educated and and not drink. Certainly, you know, the story of drink is a is a fascinating topic as we get enveloped. But we love it and we fall in love with it. We fall out of love with it. Those who wish to rule us wish we weren't drinking as much as we do. I mean, I think it's a it is a very peculiarly English story.
Our love and our obsession with booze. You know, the French, the Italians are able to have a seven hour lunch and not stagger out and throw up and be completely wasted, whereas, you know, seven hours a British seven hour lunch is is a is a massive sort of drink a thon. So there are cultural differences about drinking. But I think certainly the British story of restaurants does also hinge on the story of booze and taverns and ends and so on.
But I think really, you know, are our food story was sort of punctured. We had bad times in the Victorian era, partly, I think, because the Victorians didn't really agree with the idea of pleasure. You know, I think the Victorians wanted to ban puddings, basically. And the Second World War with rationing also stalled the advance of British food culture. It brought out that in a Puritan Victorian character in the British because we were very happy to be rationed and we remained rationed for seven years after the war.
And subsequent generations, I think, felt that they wanted to indoctrinate their children with the rationing that they'd tolerated. And so the British food story doesn't really get going until people like Elizabeth David write about food in a romantic way until the end of the sixties, where, you know, the wonderful Roux brothers turn up into London and start to open restaurants and demonstrate how wonderful food can be and how great service can be. So, yeah, it's it ebbs and flows.
I mean, with the so with the exception of of of Rome restaurants, as we understand today, going somewhere, being waited on a table, having a menu, it that's quite a it's quite a it's so funny, so ubiquitous and yet it's quite new. It's only a couple hundred years old.
It is, it is relatively new. And I think that if you speak to you know, I'm in my you know, I'm 50, speak to my parents generation, their parents, what my grandparents eating out was a was a huge luxury, you know, pre lockdown. This, you know, if you went into, you know, 20-20, our grandparents, great grandparents wouldn't have recognized how young people are able to eat out so regularly and so freely and and and relatively so cheaply.
So the idea of eating out as a kind of hobby, that restaurant going is a sort of daily enterprise would be completely, totally anathema to the previous generations. Ironically, it was the Second World War that saw Britain eating out as never before because of the British restaurant, the the sort of national network of canteens that Lord Woolton, the minister of food, set up small cafes that could produce food that was on the ration. It meant that families who'd had their houses bombed or had lost their kitchens, people could go and eat the ration and eat cheaply.
And it's not just economically but generally a healthy diet using what was available, so Britain eight out in the Second World War more than they had ever done in history. But you're quite right. The idea of, you know, restaurants being available to everybody is a is a relatively new phenomenon.
The French loom very large in this story, not just the revolution, but it strikes me that some of the words we're using every time you go in, there's a the shadow of of ah, sort of love hate relationship with the French of seems to seems to fall across every restaurant experience I have.
Or maybe that's just my overactive 18th century love of history.
No, the French have certainly been very dominant and in many ways they remain dominant. What annoys the French, though, is the fact that Catherine de Medici, when she came over from from Italy or whatever, you know, from Venice, Florence, wherever was she was living back in the day and brought her entourage with her. You know, she she married the young French king, was married by the pope. People say that she brought Italian gastronomy to France and that's what really got the French going.
So the origins of French gastronomy lay and with the with the media cheese. So the Italians can really say that they were producing proper posh food and things like zabaglione long before the French were. But the French that we like that idea. What the French did, though, particularly in the sort of mid 19th century with people like Khurram, was to formalize restaurants and restaurant menus, formalized kitchens, organize kitchens in, you know, proper brigades, almost sort of army style.
And they formalized and created sort of clear space between the amateur kitchen, the home kitchen and the professional kitchen. And so the French influence is is obviously immense and extraordinary and remains to this day. And as I touched on earlier, I think that a lot of chefs today, even if they don't know it in this country, owe a great deal to the Roux brothers because they saw this opportunity. They came into what was still a fairly bleak scene post-war still by the late 1960s, early 70s, you know, the restaurant scene was not really worth describing with a few rare examples in places like Oxford and some in London.
But they saw this opportunity, know they were entrepreneurs. Michelle and his brother Albert worked for private families. I was working for the Catholic family in England. Michelle was working for the Rothschilds in Paris. And when Michelle came to stay with his brother Alboher in the summer in Kent, they would go up to London and merrily eat in these terrible restaurants. And they saw there was an opportunity that they could create food that, you know, and restaurants create a scene that was just not available.
And but what they did was they trained a lot of young chefs. There was a new generation of chefs, people like Mark Appear white and people like Roly Lee and so on, who then went on to create their own restaurants and inspire future generations. But also they put the idea of service as a profession on the map. You know, and I think people like Diego Mazzuca, who worked at the Gavroche for four, 30 years, you know, showed young Brits that actually serving in restaurants was a was a viable and a profession to be proud of.
So the French are still having their influence today. But, you know, trends move on and different. You know, scenarios emerge Mischler these days, which obviously is a you know, is a French organization, it's a tire company with very ambitious marketing aims. Wherever they do guides, they're trying to sell tires. And that is essentially French, but so that they can stay relevant. They don't just salute and flag up, you know, places that adhere to the roots of classic French gastronomy.
You know, you get stars for little holes in the wall pubs and so on. But the know the tentacles and the influence of the French, I don't think we'll ever go away to the Japanese sushi guy in the underground station in Tokyo with the Michelin star.
Enjoy that one.
Yeah, it's interesting. The Roug journey, though, from private sort of aristocratic families to it does feel to me like with restaurants, as with so many other sporting and cultural pursuits, nice entry. It goes from like giving the bourgeois the new urban sort of middle class a taste of what it's like to be a tough because you build a nice restaurant with some gilded, you know, wood carvings and some mirrors and some chandeliers. And then you stick lots of us in there and we all get to eat the food.
That's I mean, is that something that's going on in the 19th century as this new mass of people have money to spend?
Yeah, it's interesting that and it's true because in exactly the same way as those redundant chefs from the aristocrats from the French Revolution were starting out restaurants and creating ornate places where people could dine as if they were Toff's. That's exactly what the Root Brothers were doing. They were working for wealthy families and they decided to create restaurants that again, would would reflect that the the origins of of clubs, gentlemen's clubs created in London to mirror the stately homes that drawing rooms in the libraries of the rich aristocrats in the countryside who might not have had posh London houses.
Those were created so that the toffs could feel at home. So, yes, it's absolutely a thread throughout history of, you know, the plebs finally getting a taste of what the posh people are doing thanks to the chefs. And I think the huge change that we've seen the last of 20, 30 years is an abandonment of that. And you've got young, you know, foodie entrepreneurs creating restaurants in shipping containers such as Bob is cricket.
You've got people taking advantage of this street food scene, you know, in parts of east London, people realising that you can create a stall to create food carts. You don't need bricks and mortar. The idea that you can begin a food business by having a YouTube channel or an Instagram account, this is a new way of developing and bringing ideas to the fore that absolutely gets rid of this sort of hangover of, you know, posh food for the rest of us, thanks to the chef who's managed to slip out of the gilded chateau or, you know, stately home.
But the but the that's the interesting for me about restaurants, and that is a bit different as well.
Anyway, the thing I find interesting is the Papau restaurant entrepreneurs I've got I admire them because you've got the food to organise, but you've also got the vibe to sort out.
And so they got the ship, whether it's a shipping container or one of those lovely sort of 19th century restaurants where, again, you're trying to pretend that you're you've been invited to the dining room of a stately home.
And if you're riding two very different horses in a way, aren't you? Because you can have great food but terrible at and people like you come around and just rip them to pieces for it. I mean, from the beginning, there's a bit of theatricality to restaurants.
Hasn't that been? Being a successful restaurateur is one of the most difficult tasks that I can imagine, because you've got to be a creative, you've got to be a designer. You've got to have a sort of philosophy in terms of an approach to how you cook. You've got to be a businessman because you've got to do the numbers. You've got to be a manager of people. So you've got to be, you know, have those of diplomatic skills.
And it helps if you can actually cook a plate of food, you've got to be able to find the right crockery and and the chemistry between, you know, crockery and and decor.
And you've got to do all those sorts of things. Then you've got to get people in there. You've got to be consistent, which is the hardest thing. That's what that's why Michelin stars the pressure of it gets to people, because it's not just the fact that you can cook a beautiful plate of food. You know, one day you've got to do it. The next day, the next day, the next day, every day for days, months, years.
And then you've got to tolerate people like me. Turning up and having a sniff around and bashing hilarious copier's sport, although I would say, Dan, I, I think there, you know, some of the I'm not one I take huge pleasure in finding gems and writing good reviews and actually writing good reviews is much harder than sticking sticking the knife in, even though I wouldn't say that it's not enjoyable and it does need to be done it occasionally.
But there is there's far greater pleasure for me. And I promise you, I've made it this far greater pleasure for me from writing a great review because because the positive impact of a great review is far greater than the negative one of a terrible review. So, yeah, you've got to deal with all this stuff and then you got to deal with flak from critics and then and then imagine you you've done all that and then a plague turns up and shuts you down anyway.
I mean, it is it is this it's this extraordinary profession, but it does bring in some of the most creative people and the most passionate people, which is why love the subject of food.
Well, I like the subject of it. I also like the consuming of it. It is very difficult when you get it right. It's a it's a glorious thing. So listen, where this is not we don't do this on this podcast. Tell us what the book's called. First of all, my book is called The Restaurant A History of Beating Out.
Where are your favorite spots to go at the moment? Because we've got listeners all over the world, obviously lots er in the UK.
I mean you've named a couple of great ones, the UK, but anywhere that we should be checking out in the UK at the moment, I had a wonderful I had a very good curry at Sea Spice in Aldeburgh. The other day on the Suffolk coast. I mentioned the station kitchen in Bridport. Wonderful little place, very good lobster there. I had a fantastic lunch at Sam's Riverside, which is a restaurant run by a guy who trained under 16.
That's in Hammersmith. If you're in Soho I love Crowbarred is Jeremy Lee, Scottish chef. Absolutely brilliant. If you're down in the South West, check out Hicks.
Mark Hicks, who's got his oyster and fish house in Lyme Regis anywhere in the frozen north.
Up in the north, we think I'm about to head to Aberdeenshire. And there's a place that sells lobster up in Bamburgh. I think it's called the potted lobster. I'm looking forward to eating there. And then.
And then do you go do you venture abroad for your column? Are you allowed to they send you abroad? Any North American suggestions for our audience over there?
I'm going to have to say I'm going to have to let you down. Mark my column. I have a tight leash. If only I could eat my way round the world, then I really would have the greatest job. But then I probably wouldn't be to get into an aeroplane because I wouldn't fit in the seats.
I mean, is it even possible to sort of to make a difference differentiating atmosphere and food in a restaurant?
I mean, are there other restaurants where the food is average, but you just love the atmosphere and you just you just you'd go back and buy a totally I mean, if the food is the most important thing, I think you're going up for the wrong reasons. It's rather like, you know, you can see a great comedian and you say the next day, oh, you know, Michael Macintyre forever and you know Billy Connolly. And you talk about how you did you'd never laugh so much in your life, but you can't remember any of the jokes.
It's a bit like a great meal and you have a wonderful time. If you can't remember what it was you ate, it doesn't matter because you had a great time. You had the most important thing about going out conversation and communing with your fellow humans. And if and food is that it helped that not to get in the way, which is why it's annoying if you're constantly being interrupted by someone asking you, you know, pointing at the food, telling you about every ingredient on the plate, asking if you enjoyed it, you you have to keep on thanking the staff.
Yes. Thank you. That was great. A wonderful thank you so much. We need to be left alone. I love to pour my own wine in restaurants. You know, I'm a grown up.
We want to have a good time, but also the primal scream because and we have a good time when I get loaded anyway. Enough of that. Ah, yes. I go out on my speedboat, have fish and chips for the kids on the Isle of Wight and frankly, they're the best restaurants on planet Earth. Thank you very much indeed for coming on the podcast. Thanks, Dan.
It's been really lovely chatting to you. Thank you.
Period in the history of our country. Hi, everyone, it's me, Don, so just a quick request, it's so annoying and I hate it when our podcast do this, but now I'm doing it. I hate myself. Please, please go into iTunes, where you get your podcasts and give us a five star rating and review. It really helps basically boost the job, which is good, and then more people listen, which is nice. So if you could do that, I'd be very grateful.
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