“Merrie Olde England” in Streamliner America

A German-American Promotes the English Tavern, 1939

1. General Background

These pages have chronicled off and on the importance, marked in some periods, of the English inn or tavern in the American imagination. The Colonial tavern was mainly a duplication of the British original adapted to the new frontier. (If the Dutch bar made any mark in New York or up the Hudson River, in time the British takeover of New York effaced it).

With political independence and the passage of time the cozy English hostelry rose in appeal. Still, competition abounded. There were the German beer hall, the saloon, the cocktail bar, soda fountain, and coffee shops. And newer forms continually emerged such as the beachcomber beer, described in an atmospheric, 1940 spread in PM, a newsmagazine-style spaper in Manhattan.

Despite this competition, up to Prohibition and to an extent after, British-style taverns and hotels drew custom, especially in the Northeast. Early pubs included The Grapevine in New York, McSorley’s also in New York, and the Bell-in-Hand in Boston, which I’ve discussed in earlier posts.

The porter-house, chop-house, and finally steak house, or steak and seafood joint, was an enhanced British tavern. Keens Steak House, The Old Homestead, the former Bull & Bear in the now-closed Waldorf Astoria Hotel, and Pete’s Tavern all flew the flag in New York, among others.

Yet in Ontario from 1934 until ca.1975 the British pub had probably reached its lowest ebb, ironically given the American image of Canada at the time. Post-Prohibition regulation turned our beer tavern into an unappealing appendage of (mainly) unappealing hotels.

Decor was minimal or non-existent, to keep the drinking minimal and clinical. Still, older associations were sometimes preserved, perhaps via a nicer-than-usual wood paneling scheme, or perhaps simply in the tavern’s name.

The British pub was given a new lease on life in New York, Montreal, Toronto, and other large centres from the 1960s onward. This was reinforced by arrival of the Irish pub, with no unsettling political implications as to us it was all the “British pub”.

A substantial British and Irish influx to Canada after WW II partly explained their success. As well, the classic British pub was showcased to thousands of visitors, millions in total, at international exhibitions and trade fairs between 1939 and 1967, which had a definite influence.

The British/Irish pub in Ontario replaced finally to a large extent the old beverage room but still in competition with the hotel or other cocktail bar, roadhouse bar, and countless less differentiated bars such as T.G.I.F. or the Cheers type.

The craft bar took root from the 1980s and has made inroads on the others but all still compete for the consumer’s dollar.

2. The English Tavern Between the Wars

Bob Brown’s classic Let There Be Beer!, published in New York in 1932, described pubby speakeasies:

Every big city has its distinctive English pubs and chop houses, where ale is served in silver tankards and drawn direct from the wood. Even in prohibition America a great quantity of English beer still seeps in, and Canadian ale is a general favourite with bootleggers and their patrons. Some smart speakeasies are still fitted out in the best public house style of Old London.

Earlier, I discussed a charming Tudor hotel built in 1920s Niagara Falls, NY likely with an eye to post-Prohibition. Home realty developers, even before liquor became legal in 1933, designed an “English tavern” basement for the suburban stockbroker belt. See my earlier discussions here, and here, on these matters.

The English tavern resurged after Repeal in 1933 due to this immediate background. The revival was assisted by the tavern’s relatively benign image, in contrast that is to the more purely American but also more clearly malign (in the public mind) saloon.

And so Repeal spawned many new or refurbished English-style taverns in New York and other cities. One example of many, from 1934, was in The Wave, a newspaper in Rockaway Beach, New York that carried an impressive advertisement for the Town Tavern. The ad took the form of a personal message from the promoter:

I take this opportunity to explain briefly the character of the Town Tavern soon to be opened in the Hotel Rogers, on the Boulevard at Beach 116th Street.

Its exterior will be the reproduction of a charming Old English Tavern with its colorful roof, peaked gables and little stained glass windows, the whole bathed in the mellow glow of wrought iron lanterns hanging from the eaves overhead. So realistic will be this reproduction that one will almost expect to see the genial landlord standing in the doorway awaiting the arrival of the stage-coach.

Inside, the impression of an Old English tavern will still prevail. The walls will be panelled in walnut and around the entire room will run a wide shelf beautified by interesting objects of art. On the walls above this shelf will hang paintings picturing in brilliant colors the scenes for which Merrie Olde England was famous. From the ceiling will hang great ornamental iron lanterns shedding their soft light on the tables and chairs below—-large, roomy tables covered with snowy white cloths with borders of green and gold, and comfortable chairs with colorful slip-covers snugly fitted over their backs. In keeping with this charming setting, the table service will all be new, the dishes in chaste white with ornamental borders and the silver in tasteful design. In short, the whole atmosphere of the dining room will be one of restful refinement—a place in which to dine—and wine if you wish—-leisurely and In comfort.

And the quality of the foods and beverages served at the Town Tavern will be in keeping with the character of the surroundings—the best foods that the markets provide and the choicest of wines and liquors—such foods and drinks as combine to produce the kind of a meal that one lingers over lovingly and looks back upon with fond recollection.

Similar settings, both before and during Prohibition, were eulogised by Bob Brown in his book.

Charmingly, the Town Tavern still exists, but is now called Rogers Irish Pub. A July 27, 2017 story in the Rockaway Times illuminates its history including via the images below.


English strap work and thatched-style roofing seemingly adrift in Rockaway Beach, 1934 … Of such stuff is America made.

3. An Eclectic Food Culture Emerges

As the Depression continued, an urban elite, encouraged by Repeal, fostered the revival of gastronomic traditions. I canvassed earlier the many food and wine clubs formed, influential restaurant columns such as G. Selmer Fougner’s, Consumer Reports’ pioneering alcohol beverage ratings, and the exotic world cuisines on offer at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. All gave succour and encouragement to budding, post-Prohibition epicures; they were the foodies of their time.

And so by the late 1930s a certain culinary diversity characterized the urban hotel and restaurant scene in New York and some other large cities. Fougner could write (1939) of his “week in the life”:

The week’s activities further included the Waldorf-Astoria dinner, previously rehearsed and described in this column, of the Committee of One Hundred of Miami Beach; a happy luncheon in the shadows of the snow-white vats of the Ruppert Brewery, prior to attending the first game of the World Series at the Yankee Stadium; a Society of Restaurateurs dinner at the Belgian Pavilion at the fair [the 1939 New York’s World Fair]; the opening of August Janssen’s new Boar’s Head restaurant in Lexington Avenue; a Viennese “packhuhn” at Park Avenue’s Restaurant Crillon, with one of Otto J. Baumgarten’s few remaining bottles of delightful Austrian wine, reminiscent of the gayety and sparkle which Vienna once knew, and finally a feast of our own household’s special treatment of a five-pound  two-and-one-half-inch flatbone sirloin, with a generous helping of Yvonne’s French-fried potatoes, done as no one else knows how, golden brown and crisp, yet tender … Yes the season is on.

4. War Clouds Bring “Old English” Eating to New York

Was there still room for the British tavern/chophouse in this newly eclectic food culture, other than a Keens Chop House or other “old reliable” from the past? Yes there was, as August Janssen, a pioneer of German ethnic cuisine, showed in 1939 with his new English restaurant. Janssen, who had founded the famed Hofbrau-Haus in New York 41 years earlier, was a proponent of the upscale English tavern late in life. An unlikely development, but surely one with practical spurs.

He had to wonder if his Hofbrau-Haus, which survived WW I and Prohibition, would survive the Nazi era and America’s likely entry in another war. (It did, in the result). Why not hedge your bets, so to speak?

A 1939 column by columnist Malcolm Johnson described the new venture. As quoted, Janssen spoke in dulcet, “society” tones but the meaning between the lines is unmistakable.

“For those of us who are sympathetic with the ample English appetite … I am trying to make the European war less serious for transatlantic travelers by duplicating at the Boars Head just about everything for which they once made pilgrimages to Simpson’s, the Cheshire Cheese or any of those delightful little inns down in the country, where you ate by a roaring fireplace under rafters 500 years old and besides sporting prints and gleaming pewter.”

Janssen died later in 1939 and could not supervise his new creation, but the family continued to operate both restaurants. A Boar’s Head menu survives in the NYPL menu archive, from November 1945. It gives a good idea how Janssen sought to emulate the Simpson’s and Cheshire Cheese menus of London, venerated as he had noted by prewar American visitors to London and “the country”.

A not dissimilar approach is shown by this menu of the same year, from the non-venerable Frankie and Johnnie, also founded after Repeal (it had roots in a 20s speakeasy).

Neither restaurant, in other words, was a hardy survival of a 19th century emulation of the London chop house, but was something re-imagined, essentially new.

For the beers, one may note on these menus Bass Ale, presumably a post-V-E Day importation unless pre-war stock. Guinness Stout: the same. Black Horse Ale on the Boar’s Head menu was probably from Dawes Brewery in Montreal. Both menus also featured some good American ales and lagers.

And so the robust Anglo-Saxon food and drink tradition, or one branch of it, the implantation of which in America from the mid-1800s had been carefully noted by observers, was given new life by a German-American restaurateur in the rather different conditions of 1939.

Unlike the harried chronicler Fougner, Johnson was an accomplished writer, even a stylist. He proved it by authoring in the late 1940s a multi-part exposé, “Crime on the Waterfront”, which inspired the film On The Waterfront.

Johnson added to Janssen’s explanation:

With this objective in mind, Mr. Janssen has done everything he could, in decor, cuisine and service, to provide a nostalgic spot for lovers of the old-fashioned English inn. Leighton Budd, whose drawings appeared in Punch for many years and who has been associated with Mr. Janssen for ages, has been in charge of the “restoration” of the Boars Head and has painted a four-panel mural depicting a boar hunt and feast in the legendary day of Robin Hood.

Johnson went on to lyricize Roy Leighton Budd’s wood beams “that might have come over the Channel from Caen” (!); “flints and shepherds’ crooks”; and all the “embellishments” Janssen introduced to create wide-screen romance for New Yorkers who ate out, down to the “British red” for the waiters’ uniforms.

5. Takeaway

The next time you gaze at a Duke of This or Royal That pub in Toronto, or their equivalent in 200 cities in North America, consider that this is not new, not even in the last generation. It is the contemporary expression of an old idea, rooted in our folk memory.

Whether it will last is another question, given how our craft taprooms have sprouted in London and other UK centres of influence. Put another way, for this and other reasons, the English pub may be dying in its homeland.

Note re images: The first image above was drawn from Derek Flack’s (excellent, recommended) 2017 blogpost, “The Lost Taverns and Bars of Toronto”, see here. The second image was sourced from the news article of the same year identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owner(s), as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.