A Visit to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Joseph Pennell - Harpers Weekly (1887)
Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese is an ancient public house rebuilt after the great fire of 1666 and was a favorite of Dr. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle among other literary notables.
On my first coming to London, I had fortified myself, not with a course of English history, but by re-reading 'Pickwick.' My first Sunday morning, about one o'clock, I found myself in Chancery Lane outside the entrance to Lincoln's Inn, in the company of the proverbial solitary policeman and convivial cat. On my asking the policeman where in the world I could get something to eat- as it is well known one must starve in London on Sunday before one and after three-he gave me the inevitable answer, 'Down to the bottom, first to your left, under the lamp, up the passage, and there you are!' After he had repeated these mysterious directions two or three times, and had found me hopelessly ignorant of his meaning, he did what I have very seldom known a London policeman to do-a proof of his loneliness; he walked to the end of Chancery Lane with me, and there being no one in Fleet Street, pointed out the sign of the Cheshire Cheese. A push at the door, and I have passed into another world. I was in a narrow hall, at the far end of which was a quaint bar, where, framed in by small panes, were two very pretty, but I cannot say fascinating barmaids-! never could be fascinated by the ordinary English barmaid. Suddenly a waiter with a very short nose came out of another room and screamed up the stairs: 'Cotherum steak. Boatherum foozlum mash. Fotherum coozlum, botherum steak!' and then remarked to me: 'Lunch, sir? Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. What can I get you, sir? Steak, sir; chop, sir; kidney, sir; potatoes, sir, cooked in their jackets, sir? Yes, sir; thank you, sir.' Then up the stairs he added: 'Underdone steak one!' Then to me again: 'Walk in, sir. Take a seat, sir. Paper, sir? Lloyd's, sir? Reynolds', sir? Yes, sir.'...
I had begun to look around me. I found I had stumbled on just what I had determined to make a hunt for. I was in one of the greenbaize-curtained boxes into which Mr. Pickwick was always dropping under the guidance of Sam Weller, whose 'knowledge of London was extensive and peculiar.' Unless you have a Sam Weller at your elbow you will not very easily find the Cheshire Cheese, the last of the London chop-houses, even though it is in Baedeker. In the opposite corner was, not Mr. Pickwick, but one of those respectable shabby old gentlemen you never see outside of London. The waiter asked him in the same confidential tone, 'if he would not have a half-bitter! if he would not like to see yesterday's Times? A most interestin' article in it, sir, Mr. Price, sir.' Then Mr. Price's half-bitter came in a dented old pewter pot, and along with it an exaggerated wine-glass; and Mr. Price held the pewter in the air, and a softly murmuring stream flowed from the one into the other. Beyond the box I was in I saw other hard straight-backed seats, and between them other most beautifully clean, white clothcovered tables, at all of which were three or four rather quiet and sedate, but after their manner sociable, Englishmen, everybody seeming to know everybody else in the place. Everything seemed happy, even to the cat purring on the hearth, and the brass kettle singing on the hob. Perhaps I should except the restless waiter, who, when anyone came in, rushed to the bottom of the stairs and gave his unearthly yell. Soon down the same stairs came the translation of the yell in the shape of the steak I had ordered, and With it the potatoes in their jackets, all on old blue willow-ware plates.
'Your steak, sir. Yes, sir. Anything else, sir? Napkin, sir? Oh, serviette! Yes, sir. All Americans like them, sir.'
And so I found for the first time that napkins and bread, freely bestowed in decent restaurants at home, are in England looked upon as costly luxuries.
I have returned again and again to the Cheshire Cheese, and have, moreover, tried to induce others to go there with me. For if the place is not haunted, as it is said to be, by the shades of Ben Jonson and Herrick, of Samuel Johnson and Boswell, the waiter is perfectly willing, for a consideration, to point out to you the stains of their wigs on the wall. It is certain that Dickens, Forster, Tom Hood, Wilkie Collins, and many other worthies did frequent it, while Sala periodically puffs it, and a host of other lights have written about it 'In my own small way I have endeavoured to lead some modem junior novelists and poets there, to show them how n~ar they could come to some of the great masters whom they apparently worship so thoroughly. But on the only occasion when I succeeded in placing one probably in the seat of Goldsmith or Herrick, he sniffed at the chops and remarked that if Johnson had had a napkin it would have been better for his personal appearance.
I hardly know myself what is the attraction of the place, for you can only get chops and steaks, kidneys and sausages, or on Saturdays a gigantic pudding, to eat your money's worth of which you must have the appetite of a Gargantua, or, on Shrove Tuesdays, pancakes. If you should happen to want anything else, you would probably get the answer which Mr. Sala says was given to a friend of his who asked (at the Cock) for a hard boiled egg with his salad: 'A hegg! If Halbert Hedward 'imself wuz to cum 'ere he couldn't 'ave a hegg.' Whoever really cares to see the last of the Old London chop-houses, let him, when next in London, look up the sign of YE OLDE CHESHYRE CHEESE.