A Beer for the Gods
Lieut.-Col. Nathaniel Newnham-Davis (1854-1917) was a food phenomenon of his time: restaurant reviewer, cookery teacher, travel writer. I discussed him earlier, but mention him again for his vibrant account in 1914 of Romano’s, in the Strand, London. ‘The Roman’ was a favoured restaurant of the great and the good, the bon ton, the stars of the stage.
It was founded in 1874 by an Italian immigrant, Alfonso Romano. The emporium lasted all the way to 1941, until bomb damage and the privations of war proved a challenge too far.
A 1951 story in the Australian press by Lachlan Beaton memorialized the place, its many charms and quirks. He tells of the “cream of the chorus and the gilded young escorts”, “Moorish pillars”, “discrete private rooms” and more. It’s a good counterpart to Newnham-Davis’ more extended piece.
While not a temple of the beery arts, Romano’s should be remembered for The Three Angels, an all-beer cocktail so to speak. I infer the name was a double pun, as Giulio Romano the Late Renaissance painter depicted Mary of Magdalene borne aloft by angels. See here, in the National Gallery.
According to Beaton, the drink was equal parts “Bass”, “bottled beer”, and “Russian stout”. The Bass according to other accounts was Bass barley wine, the dark, extra-strong Bass beer of historical fame. The Russian stout was likely, or often, Barclay’s Russian Imperial stout: a strong, velvety London brew. Bottled beer meant an everyday light or pale ale.
The Three Angels was favoured by actors of the Gaiety next door, probably for its restorative qualities. No less than Edward VII when Prince of Wales liked a round with his friends. Romano’s long-time cellarman, Bendi, favoured the drink as well.
Despite the Bacchic riches in the cellar, some patrons wanted a beer – and Romano’s stretched to make that special, too. The Three Angels seems a riff on an older mixture of bitter and old ale (‘old and bitter’, you know).
(Source of image: the online forum WW I Military Motors)*
Old and bitter was the house cocktail of the upper echelon pub, the Cheshire Cheese, on Fleet Street. But a temple of gastronomy has to outdo even a venerable public house. The Three Angels was Romano’s answer.
And now, acrid dust has replaced the fragrance of cigars, scent, and good cooking and soon nobody will remember Romano’s at all. Even its spiritual annexe, the nearby Gaiety Theatre, is a gutted shell— another legacy of war.
So wrote Beaton to end his piece. War, disease, and other distress, including now our current pandemic, work irreversible changes in fashions and the times. So it was with Romano’s, so it will be with some institutions of our day, culinary and other.
Even when Newnham-Davis lauded The Roman trouble loomed. He noted Champagne sales had provided much of the restaurant’s profit but the supply looked to dry up with war afoot in Europe.
Did it? Another subject for historical inquiry. One way or another, Romano’s survived for another day, but the next war proved too great a foe.
Tonight make yourself a Three Angels to ponder the riddles of time and tide. There are strong ales, Imperial stouts, and bitter beers a plenty today to choose from. Let me know how you make out (see comments below).
*The image above is used for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.