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What were British Restaurants? Bryce Evans

Blog | By Bryce Evans | Sep 12, 2022

Woolmore Street British Restaurant, 1942

At their peak, there were 2,160 British Restaurants, opened with the aim of combating food- and fuel-price inflation and boost morale. By Professor Bryce Evans

British Restaurants were public dining rooms offering price-capped, nutritious meals to people in the 1940s and 1950s.

You may associate canteen dining with the reek of cabbage and the misery of wet trays, but these sites were designed to be ‘centres of civilisation’.

The name was coined by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940. Churchill thought the Ministry of Food’s preferred title – Communal Feeding Centres – was redolent of Dickensian poverty or Soviet monotony.

The British Restaurant had been pioneered in the First World War as the ‘National Kitchen’ and the goal remained the same: to combat food- and fuel-price inflation and boost morale, the state would subsidise attractive, yet cheap, urban social-eating spaces. After receiving a start-up grant from the Treasury, local government was responsible for recruiting a paid staff; central purchasing ensured economies and meals were affordable.

When it came to menus, a balance had to be struck between the Ministry of Food’s nutritionists, eager to get the Great British public eating more vegetables, and a general public resistance to healthier fare. To overcome an institutional feel, the Ministry insisted on pleasant surroundings featuring specially commissioned artwork; some sites in London even had paintings on loan from the Royal Collection.

At their peak, there were 2,160 British Restaurants. Today, there are half as many McDonald’s restaurants in the UK. The British Restaurant outlasted the war, but numbers were already in decline when rationing was lifted in 1954, and few survived after that point.

Cheap yet nutritious social eating was a successful way of combating what is today termed ‘food poverty’. These were popular cross-class venues and there was less stigma attached to their use than is associated with food-bank use today.

Backers of the scheme included Barbara Cartland, grocer Alf Roberts (Margaret Thatcher’s father) and Flora Solomon of Marks and Spencer. Although there was opposition from sections of the private food trade, retail guru and wartime Minister of Food Lord Woolton smoothed relations between the state and private enterprise.

The British Restaurant was a vital supplement to the ration book, with tangible psychological and health benefits. We need to rescue canteen-dining from its Orwellian image problem and recognise, in times of hardship and price inflation, its social and economic benefits.

Bryce Evans’s Feeding the People in Wartime Britain is out from (Bloomsbury)