London restaurant serves WWII rationing cuisine

I'm intrigued by this Time Out review of Kitchen Front, a restaurant at London's Imperial War museum that serves accurate re-creations of the (mostly horrible) food eaten in Britain during WWII's rationing period. Time Out gave it two star for food quality and full marks for accuracy (in the print edition, at least -- they haven't recreated this online). It sounds like a uniquely wonderful and horrible dining experience, especially as the food is prepared by a well-loved firm of caterers who've really gotten into the spirit of things.

Salt was the dominant flavour of 'Mrs Harwood's lentil and cheese pie'. It tasted floury and bland - my grandmother used to make the same dish. I couldn't fault it for authenticity. It came with a dollop of sludgy green pease pudding, just as it might have been in the war years.

The baked potato, though, was quite good, served with a fishy filling and a proper 1940s salad - English lettuce, rings of spring onion, no dressing.

Sweets include scones filled with 'mock cream' made from margarine beaten with caster sugar, tasting exactly as you'd imagine it to, ie nothing like cream at all... [B]e warned that for a more fortunate generation brought up on meat, sweets, fats and deftly used spices, the drabness of austerity cooking can come as a bit of a shock

I've subscribed to the print edition of Time Out for a few years now here in London -- it's the only print magazine I still subscribe to, in fact -- and I just love it to pieces. As aspirational reading about all the things I would do if I wasn't all the time running around like my ass was on fire, it can't be beat. And every now and again I get to actually follow some of its advice (I've been trying a lot of the coffee mentioned in its Best London Coffee feature last month -- yum!) and I'm never disappointed.

Kitchen Front


  1. I’ve never eaten in England but I’ve gotta believe that there’s a reason I never see fancy restaurants advertising “Fine English Cuisine” in other countries. In fact the few places I’ve seen that offer “English” food at all only sell it as an accompaniment to ale or tea, which leaves me with the impression that Brits have never been as good at edibles as they are with potables.

  2. The real success of “English” food (other than a lovely roast dinner) is the incorporation of the best food from all the places we used to own and import residents from.

    Best result of a brutal empire.

  3. I’m surprised to hear Time Out in London is good. I’ve read (but NEVER subscribed to) Time Outs Chicago and New York. Both are god-awful bottom-of-the-barrel rags only slightly better written than your average edition of, say, the Daily Mail. It seems that their target audiences are bridge-and-tunnels and hipsters.

  4. And now for something more positive, this restaurant sounds pretty fun, but in the same sense that going to a restaurant specializing in various fried arthropods sounds pretty fun.

  5. I wonder if the poor reputation of English cuisine in North America is largely a result of the lasting impressions brought back by returned service men during this period.

    1. I don’t think the poor reputation just comes from the ration era, but I think the war left its scars on a generation of British cooking that it’s only just recovering from. The current crop of British chefs such as Fergus Henderson and Heston Blumenthal are doing a great job of resurrecting lost British culinary traditions. In the 10 years since I emigrated here I’ve really seen the turnaround.

  6. In Berlin there is a similar restaurant. It’s called 1887 or 1911 or something and you can taste some traditional end 19th/ early 20th century recipes there. It takes its approach very serious and seems to be quite the experience.

    I even walked past it. But I can’t remember the exact name, what is the number of the year in this regard, lol.

  7. There is British food, but there isn’t quite such a signature dish I’d guess. Plus, I suspect that various traditional British foods were exported to the colonies – e.g. roast dinners.

    Maybe some of the following count?

    Lancashire Hotpot (kind of stew)
    Yorkshire Puddings (batter puddings, traditionally served with roast beef)
    Pork Pies
    Black Pudding
    Spotted Dick (sponge with currants)
    Victoria Sponge
    Bangers (sausages) and mash

    When you think about it, “national dishes” are a strange concept anyway. I’m told that there’s something American about Apple Pie, but I’d be very surprised if no one made apple pie before Columbus et al. went left a bit.

    1. Anthony Bourdain did a great episode of “No Reservations” about British food (and another about Scotland) that featured a lot of great sausages, cheeses and even seafood. When you add in all the South Asian influences in the UK there’s tones (or tonnes) of great food. It’s just fun to give the Brits the razz. Like the old joke that the whole British empire was a desperate attempt to conquer nations with decent cuisine.

      Mind you, I’m Irish. The land that never met a food it could not boil.

    2. Apparently, apple pie supplanted mince pie as the stereotypical American pie as recently as the 1940s. The most amazing part is that nobody seems to remember anything about it.

      As for rationing cuisine: I think the review hits the nail on the head as to why it was so unappealing. Basically the approach was to improvise approximations of the foods that people were used to with the ingredients they had available. A lot of the ingredients that were available during rationing are not inherently icky (in fact, some are things I eat every day as a vegetarian), it’s just the way they were prepared that made them unappealing.

      1. Well, maybe “nobody” remembers mince pie if you are referring to children of Baby Boomers. But as a child of older parents (I guess they are the so-called “silent generation” between the GI generation and the Boomers), I certainly had mince pie quite often growing up.

  8. Anyone can make great food from great ingredients. English (and Scandanavian) cuisine is amazing because it makes food out of just about anything. it makes the inedible inot the edible, even enjoyable on occasion.

  9. I wonder how that fare compares with compos (composite rations) which is what tommy was eating in the field. Remember too, that rationing didn’t end in Britain until 1954.

  10. Life imitating art? sounds like an update of the 40s club called ‘The Blitz’ featured in the episode of the same name of the 70s series ‘Rock Follies’. Powdered eggs and ration coupons.

  11. Years ago I read MFK Fisher’s ‘How to Cook a Wolf’ about hunger, survival and the joy of eating in the face of adversity. It’s less about poverty, and more about the sweetness and richness that comes from controlling your own life.

    There’s also a eponymous Seattle restaurant that I’ve been dying to try.

  12. As you tick off the cafes, you will notice that the best coffee in London is made by New Zealanders and Australians. Monmouth deserves props for being a beacon of light in the dark (coffee) ages, but the Square Mile affiliated cafes are on fire.

    Back on track: The true populist British ‘cuisine’ is that of the greasy spoon cafe. Genuine examples are hard to find in the single digit postcodes of London. If you go hunting, I hope you like baked beans. My favourite has to be Mario’s Cafe in Kentish Town. Kind of an English cafe/Italian home cooking mash up. Passable coffee, but one of the few places with a heart in franchise blighted London.

    1. Agreed. I’ve switched from Monmouth beans to Square Mile blends. I bought a bag at Flat White that I’m almost through, and then I’ve got a bag from Taste of Bitter Love to try. Much as I love Monmouth coffee, I pull a better shot at home with Square Mile beans.

  13. Frankly, British cuisine is awful.

    When you try to veer away from the roast plus starch or sausage plus eggs or pate you’re in trouble.

    Watch Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (BBC) and you’ll witness how awful their cuisine is. If you have not already eaten it yourself.. (which I have)

  14. My Mother was born in 1940, and they lived in Bow Road until moving to the country during the war (Chipping Ongar).

    This is my family’s food!

    My Nana wasn’t a “bad” cook per se, but she had learnt how to cook in a very poor family and then during the war, so yorkshire puddings and trifle were her best dishes. My Mother never got the knack of cooking. More than likely because her mother (Nana) was a little confrontational about her own food, as she said “You didn’t dare say anything, you just ate it.” My brothers and I all started cooking young, around 12, as we say “out of self defense”; Mom really just didn’t “get” cooking. And while we’re all rather good cooks now (I make awesome Dal and Naan from scratch) we still go wobbly in the knees for a proper trifle or a bloody roast beef with yorkshire puddings and fresh horseradish. mmmmmm…

    Now I’m hungry.

  15. fine english cuisine? i’m glad we do not hear about that much, what a stupid phrase. like we hear much about fine american/ canadian / dutch / russian / taiwanese cuisine, etc etc etc…. in that exact turn of phrase…

    as a brit living in the USA for a long time i can happily bemoan the lack of decent FOOD in this country till the cows come home. there’s plenty of well documented books and articles pointing to an eating culture here that is unhealthy, monocultural and driven by $$$ not taste. — that’s what the food scientists are for.

    when i fly back to the UK, after 8 hours of crappy airline food i like that i can go into any branch of marks and spencers in the airport and pick up a ploughmans sandwich (that’s 2 triangular wedges of brown bread, buttered, with cheddar cheese, greens and branston pickle)…. can’t say the same in the USA. finding a decent sandwich in a “fast” food context is impossible. subway does not count.

    british food often gets a bad rap coz it’s deemed unhealthy, high fat and what not. some of the best brit food is things like the “full english/welsh/scots/irish” breakfast which usually consists of bacon, sausage, fried tomato, fried bread, poss. hash browns, baked beans, poss. black pudding, toast w. butter and marmalade, healthy slathering of brown sauce (HP), fried mushrooms…. veggie options usually available for all of above. i had veggie black pudding recently and it was very good. now i defy anyone here in the states to pass up on a feast like that at 9am in the morning.

    other signature dishes are fairly fatty too. fish and chips for example is a heart attack on a plate fair enough. but if this is purely about taste then once again i defy any salty fordist french frie to even come close to the odd shaped, steaming, british chip, served in a wad of newspaper after the pub. served on a bap, as a chip butty for lunch with butter and a fried egg. this is soul food. and bits…. when in the UK ask for your fish and chips with bits.. you’ll get a bunch of crispy batter bits… again not exactly healthy but pretty damn tasty.

    as a veggie roast beef and yorkshire pudding is def. off my menu now. but as a kid growing up i could eat mountains of the stuff. yorkshire puddings are like pancakes cooked in the oven at very high temp so they crisp up and yet are soft in middle. try them with sausage, onions and gravy as toad in the hole.

    english food is hearty food developed over centuries of rain and mist and generally shitty weather. it’s food developed using what you could get your hands on. whether that’s spuds and carrots and turnips, or chicken tikka, lamb masala and so forth….

    … in the media cooking shows on TV in the UK have waned a bit i think giving way in part to auction and real estate reality programmes. but 10 years ago day time TV from 3pm – 6pm was heaving with shows like ready steady cook and Masterchef… eating well and eating tasty was popularized and enshrined in UK culture…. folks went from watching jamie oliver to making the stuff in 24 hours… go into any sainsburys or tesco or marks and spencers and be amazed at the wealth of ingredients from all over the world… where are the cooking shows on USA network TV, not cable but on ABC NBC etc… where does watching people cook fit into the 24 hr news cycle?

    also WTF with the bread over here? leave a loaf of wonderbread in a puddle it’ll dissolve. sugar in bread? WTF? bread is the staple food rich / poor yet decent bread over here in only available at a premium, cheap bread here is shit. u can always get a decent loaf of bread in the UK at a reasonable price….

    an on and on…. seriously…. beer, gin, cup of tea, scones with clotted cream, christmas pudding, custard, rhubarb crumble, vanilla slices, english toffee, eccles cakes, cornish pasties, meat and potato pie, samosas, meat and two veg, trifle, beans on toast, cheese on toast, welsh rarebit, cadburys creme eggs, oxo, hp sauce, mint sauce….

    ok i’m off to eat my porridge.

  16. if you’re interested in the traditions and excellence of English cuisine, try and get a copy of The Cookery of England by Elisabeth Ayrton (now out of print). It includes recipes from the 15th century up to the 1960s. It also has some famine and poorhouse recipes. She makes a great deal out of Soup as one of the forgotten glories of the English kitchen – something still not rediscovered.

    There are several themes to English cooking: adopted (Empire/Trade) cuisines, rural peasant, the simple (based on outstanding quality meat), the foods that powered industrial revolution and the excesses of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Unfortunately people seem to focus on the Victorian insistence on boiling vegetables into pulp, a habit which continued up to the 1970s. That, and the bad diet of the industrial working class has blighted Britain’s culinary reputation for decades. While the WW2 cuisine drew on some of that dire tradition, it was later shown that the nutritional quality of the WW2 diet was far better than that of the majority in the 20s and 30s. (And probably today. Very little fat or sugar, high fibre, low GI…)

    1. The while you make the point that a number of simiple, nutritious foods powered the industrial revolution, it was also that same revolution that caused the greatest damage to English cuisine. With the industrialization of food production and the increasing centralization of working populations in urban areas, the need to feed a lot of people very cheaply led to a dramatic decline in the quality of materials used in cooking. Most of the potted meats and meat pastes that featured in a lot of working-class foods until the 80s were products of this period, as were the increasingly suspect fillings in sausages and pies. Not to mention the adulteration of bread in the mid-19th century, which Marx discusses in nauseating detail. During the Tudor period, English cooks and pastry chefs were actually the envy of the French, and English techniques for roasting meats were some of the most advanced in Europe.

      jackie31337: my dad actually makes his own mincemeat, and it’s marvelous. A lot of my friends are confused when I explain to them that there is actually meat in it.

      1. Boba. I wasn’t making myself clear. I completely agree with you about the industrial revolution having a detrimental effect on British cuisine – and destroying many people’s knowledge of food and cooking. The industrial urban food of the 19th century is just one of the strands of British cuisine, and the worst one at that. It shouldn’t be the standard by which to judge British cuisine generally.

        Another point about the wartime diet is its environmental superiority to today’s: it was local, seasonal, with a low meat content. (And no bananas.)

  17. I’m not from the UK, but there are a few dishes from that part of the world that I really like, Shepherd;s Pie and Colcannon being two. That and a good curry.

    I have relatively simple tastes.

  18. If you encounter, say, toad in the hole, and the entire dish is not consumed with requests for more; someone somewhere, is doin’ it wrong.*

    *Right, is using iced water for your batter. Try it.

  19. When I was in London in May 2008 I caught this BBC program: “The Supersizers Go Wartime” where our intrepid duo spend a week eating UK wartime food.

    Surprise: “The striking thing about the wartime diet was that after one week Sue Perkins, already a willow, had lost two pounds, and Giles Coren three and a half.”

    Apparently the heart attack rate dropped. Probably due to most of the UK eating mostly vegetables.

  20. I think #21 is missing the points a) that Gordon Ramsay is British, as are many other Michelin-starred chefs; and b) that the places he visits on Nightmares generally don’t do ‘cuisine’.

    Or, possibly, he really likes processed cheese.

  21. @#20
    I know Mario’s cafe, it’s very good.
    I think British food has improved enormously over the last 20 years. Perhaps there isn’t that depth of knowledge that there is on the continent but there are now 1,200 British cheeses, plenty of farmers markets, a thriving home restaurant scene.
    On the other hand, there can be crap processed food, just like in some areas of America.
    I’d like to check out the imperial war museum cafe

  22. I am fascinated by the article and all the comments – a lesson in history from a perspective I had barely considered before.

    Two summers ago my family had unforgettable breakfasts in our (really cheap, really crappy) hotel in London: The full English with all the overripe fruit you could consume. The pineapple was to die for. The advice to us on checking in was to hit Sainsbury’s after 8pm as that is when the produce was marked down. And, of course, that’s when our hosts did their shopping.

    The point is, to be notable, food doesn’t have to be good or bad, just interesting!

  23. Cory, if you still subscribe to print at all, you may like ‘The Oldie’ magazine. It’s the only magazine I subscribe to. It’s a British magazine about Britain.

    I live in Canada, and have never been to Britain. The Oldie may be better than actually visiting the UK- it’s great reading, and it has excellent cartoons.

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