It was Raymond Postgate who took us by the hand and introduced us to good food. His 1951 Good Food Guide was a game-changer, a printed weapon against the mock cream, boiled meat, and blow-torch manners of the 1950s hostelry, and a way to pilot hungry stomachs to decent fillings.
It was, in his own guide's words, "the first mapping of an unexplored country" and Postgate duly became a legend over the 20 years he minded the nation's stomach on the guide. Only it wasn't the first food guide, not really. Postgate wasn't mapping virgin territory, or at least not in London; he was following a path cut by a Regency buck called Ralph Rylance.
Rylance, a Grub Street drudge of slim means and capacious stomach, published his own guide some 136 years earlier in 1815, a book that the British Library last month republished. The Epicure's Almanack, then five shillings and sixpence but now £30, is a full directory of all the taverns, coffee houses, inns and eating houses in Regency London. And not only that. Rylance reviewed them as he went. He was the father of today's menu-thieving critics, the John Walsh of his day.
It was a unique, almost bizarre, undertaking. Although Rylance says in his introduction that his book has been modelled on the Alexandre Grimod de la Reynière series of French almanachs, title aside, it is a very distant cousin indeed. Grimod was a voluptuary, listing only the exquisite, the celebrated and the purse-wincingly expensive; Rylance's volume is earthy, looking to situation, service speed, and, not a #little, the contents of his wallet.
Alas, on publication the book sank like an over-egged soufflé, disappearing into the obscurity of libraries' rare manuscripts room, the province only of culinary scholars and regency dons. Now, though, with it republication, we can reopen the time capsule, and gaze inside the manners and mores of 19th-century diners and drinkers. And more than that, we also get to see which pubs and eating houses are still going strong in the same premises with the same name as they had nearly two centuries ago. So, over two rainy days, I visited six of the most historic to create my own 21st-century update of this Regency guide.
Unlike Rylance, I have the benefit of the Central line, so I'm quick to get to the first pub. The Seven Stars, hiding on Carey Street right behind the Old Bailey, is a bit eccentric, a condition to which a 400-year-old pub is surely entitled.
The walls are purple and red with a vaulted ceiling and the Soho émigré landlady, Roxy Beaujolais, has the habit of calling you "squire" if she likes you. The pub cat, wearing a Tudor ruff, looks on without favour.
Rylance notes: "The gridirons and frying pans are in constant service of the red-tailed knights [of the law] here." And the crowd is still all briefs and clients, pinstripes and bundles. The eight-dish menu – marked out on a chalkboard to the left of the bar – has a cured herring and potato salad (£12), which I have, and which most of barristers seem to be chowing down on. Long, glistening fillets, silver-backed and sweet cured, with a potato salad melting away into its oleaginous dressing arrives after 10 minutes spent drinking the Adnam's beer.
"Not a bad spot of lunch," says a wig-wearer on a neighbouring oil cloth-covered table – and I have to agree; 198 years later it's chugging along just fine.
My next venue, the Cock and Woolpack on Finch Lane, sidling up beside the Bank of England, leads me to ask a question: when did we first begin to suffer under the yoke of capricious, celebrity-hungry chefs? You might think it all started with Auguste Escoffier at The Savoy Hotel in the late 19th century. But even over half a century earlier, at least one was skulking around the Cock and Woolpack: "A cook [Mr Denton] occupies as authoritative a position as the Lord Chancellor... with almost as much dignity."
Today, Denton's modern heirs – Blumenthal, Darroze or Ramsay – are much missed. The only food on offer consists of sandwiches and burgers. But still, as Ruth, my banker friend, says, "at least my glass of pinot grigio is cold". Which is something.
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese next, at 145 Fleet Street. In Rylance's day, John Calton reigned here, with "dexterity and precision to the universal satisfaction of all comers" serving dinners "smoking" and "porter foaming". Latterly it victualled the denizens of Fleet Street, when newspapers still lived on that street and papers were still launched on great tidal waves of booze.
The printing presses have gone, Lord Beaverbrook's Express building is Goldman Sachs' London set-up and the front bar, once marked "men only", now rings with chatter about eurobonds. It's an odd juxtaposition, the youthful bankers in a room so dark, over-varnished, with its stuffed eagle and dominating metal fireplace, sawdust on the floor. It's like a 19th-century theme park and seems like it hasn't been repainted since the Great War – but perhaps that's the look. The Samuel Smith's beer is perfectly fine, and the food of the "ye olde steak chop" variety. It was nice to see, though – I only wish I'd been here 50 years earlier.
Down the street at No 96 sits The Bell. Built as lodgings for Christopher Wren's masons, who were working on nearby St Bride's, it is described in the Almanack as "dress[ing] dinners to order; the beverages are good and the charges moderate". It was a working man's pub and is similar today.
"What d'you want?" the unsmiling barman asks. I want, and have, a pint and the "beef rib pie" (£9.95), which is big and oily enough to power you through an afternoon building a church, but not so good as to gain a place in my own mental almanack of places to revisit.
Simpson's Tavern on Ball's Court, however, I might use as a canteen, if I worked close by. Indeed, it serves the type of food you used to get in certain English school canteens: fisherman's pie, stews, massive roasts and calves' liver are the order of the day (around £10). Rylance notes its "sumptuous larder"; you wouldn't call it that today – maybe hearty and comforting would be better.
"Glad to be in here and out of the office for once," one man in a suit says to another on an adjacent table.
"Amen to that," the other man replies.
I can't help agreeing and neither, presumably, could the tourists in here.
A walk now to The George now at 77 Borough High Street. This is one of that unusual group – pubs owned by The National Trust.
And indeed the barmen do seem to have sympathy with those stern chaps at stately homes who tell you not to get to close to the Sèvres china. The "substantial cheer" Rylance found is as distant a memory as are the coaches that used to stop here.
So after a long walk and a small fortune spent on the Tube, I've completed my mini homage to Regency dining. What did I find? Several things: antiquity is no guide to quality, first; that, inconceivably, there is a thriving chop scene in and around the City of London; and, most importantly, the best of places move with the times, cherish the past, but don't forget it's 2012.
Give me a proper pub, with simple menu and a cat in a ruff, rather than a museum any day.
The Epicure's Almanack is out now (£30, British Library)
Other old timers
Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh
This Edinburgh stalwart has been serving grub for six centuries. Head there for a cracking Sunday lunch.
The Olde White Swan, York
A friendly Yorkshire pub which has been serving decent ale since the 16th century. If you go late in the evening you can see the actors from the ghost tour resting up in there.
The Pear Tree Inn, Wiltshire
A former farm dating back to 1750, set in four acres of garden and now run by the Marco Pierre White group. The restaurant has two AA rosettes and the rooms upstairs, 5 stars.Reuse content