A La Carte Restaurant


Jan 6, 2005
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It has been a long time – several years, in fact – since I've posted here, but this weekend's centenary made me want to come back here and be with other Titanoraks again. One of my great interests regarding Titanic is her A La Carte restaurant, located on B Deck. One of the reasons I'm interested is that I am a recovering foodie (I taught at one point), and the A La Carte operation seems to have been unusual. To understand why I think that, a look at the First Class dining room, where most First Class passengers ate most of the time, is instructive, I think.

Titanic's First Class dining room offered a very decently high standard of dining at sea, but a close examination of what few menus are available shows that most items available on its menu were things that were reasonably easy to prepare in quantity, and which could be “held” with relative success. The entrees seen on the First Class dinner menu for the night of April 14th tell the story. The Filet Mignon Lili was the most ambitious entree; it required sauteeing to order, and none of the saute could be done ahead, since beef cannot be half-cooked and finished later and still served rare. Still, a saute is fairly fast. The Saute of Chicken Lyonnaise would likely have been half-sauteed and finished to order; chicken is exactly the opposite of beef in that it needs to be well-done. Of the other entrees, the Vegetable Marrow Farci (a stuffed squash similar to zucchini) was likely capable of pre-production and being held hot, the lamb with mint sauce was probably a roast (if you've gone to the expense of offering lamb chops, you say so on your menu), held hot and carved to order, and the duckling and sirloin of beef likely were, too.

This assortment of entrees, then, is largely feeding adroitly disguised as dining. There is an effort at cost containment; the Vegetable Marrow Farci brings the cost average per diner down, since it could likely be made with trimmings or leftover meat. And the filet mignon might not have been so costly as today's recipe writers make it out to be; there are versions of the dish with fois gras and truffles, and versions without. Given the relative lack of ambition in the other entrees, my money would be on “without.”

There was also the dining experience afforded by the First Class dining room. It was obviously designed with cleanliness – both actual and perceived – in mind; its paneling and strapwork ceiling were painted white. Potted palms softened the look of the room somewhat, as did its linoleum floor of blue, red and yellow. But illumination was fairly bright, and the expanses of snowy linen on the tables did little to mitigate what feels to me like a certain “cold” look to the room. Obviously, in actual use, the room would have looked very different than it does in the stiffly posed photos we have (which are likely Olympic); the dresses of female diners alone would have gone a great way in softening the total effect.

Which brings me to the A La Carte restaurant. Evidently no photographs of Titanic's A La Carte restaurant are extant, but photographs of Olympic's survive, as indeed does much of the restaurant itself, in the form of its paneling, now on the Celebrity Millennium. The difference between the blinding white of the First Class dining room and the A La Carte restaurant could hardly be greater; the A La Carte had light French walnut paneling, lots of gilt-bronze fixtures like wall sconces, and damask chairs. The A La Carte was also fully carpeted, which must have taxed the staff, since food spills (both from plates and, er, other sources) would have been difficult to clean up. What seems to have been important was that the A La Carte restaurant was elegant, intimate and romantic. It had its own china, specially commissioned from Royal Crown Derby, and, I believe, its own cutlery, probably the A. Price & Co. Panel Reed pattern found in a Titanic copper sink near the stern (Price's Dubarry was White Star Line's choice for the First Class dining room).

The A La Carte was rather oddly located, I must say – far aft on B Deck, on the other side of a bulkhead from the Second Class smoking room, and rather close to the Third Class promenade – and I have to wonder if slow speeds and calm, windless days didn't bring in some fumes from the stacks. But a look at the bow end of B Deck makes White Star Line's intent clear – the very best staterooms, including the two “millionaire's suites” with their private promenades, were forward on the same deck, mere steps away, far closer than a trudge down the Grand Staircase or a wait for the elevator to get down to D Deck where the First Class Dining Room was. No Astor or Goelet or Widener or Vanderbilt was going to have to look very far for the best dining on the ship!

Looking at the physical setup of the A La Carte, then, it's obvious that White Star Line went to quite a lot of effort and expense to offer an extra-cost experience that passengers would feel was worth the money – after all, meals taken in the First Class dining room were included in their fare, which was pretty substantial. Sadly, no A La Carte menus seem to have survived the sinking – damn iceberg! - and there seems to be only fragmentary information available about what was served there.

Lady Duff-Gordon recounted the experience of being served fresh strawberries in the A La Carte – in April, in the middle of the North Atlantic, in 1912 – and Mahala Douglas waxed even more lyrical: "The tables were gay with pink roses and white daisies, the women in their beautiful shimmering gowns of satin and silk, the men immaculate and well-groomed, the stringed orchestra playing music from Puccini and Tchaikovsky. The food was superb: caviar, lobster, quail from Egypt, plover's eggs, and hothouse grapes and fresh peaches.” None of Mrs. Douglas's selections are to be found on any known First Class dining room menu: This had to be the A La Carte.

There is one more clue to the cuisine in the A La Carte that I'm aware of - an Olympic menu from 1913. It's on gray stock, not white like a regular White Star Line dining room menu, and its menu selections are several orders of magnitude more ambitious than anything I've seen on the regular First Class menus: There is clear green turtle soup, that hallmark of Gilded Age gastronomy, as well as a complicated lobster dish and prime rib. Since Olympic and Titanic were so very similar, and since White Star Line worked very hard to keep the passenger experience consistent (a 1904 breakfast menu I've seen from HMS Oceanic is virtually identical to the First Class breakfast menu on Titanic, eight years later), I feel fairly certain that the A La Carte menu on Titanic must have been similar to the 1913 Olympic menu. And it's clear – this is haute cuisine, not mere good food.

There are some other indications of extra-special service available from the A La Carte. A look at the deck plans for B Deck show that the restaurant had at least half-a-dozen alcoves that could likely have been screened or curtained for private parties, creating an experience even more exclusive than the rest of the restaurant. It would also have been possible - though I cannot be certain it ever happened – for a particularly discriminating and wealthy passenger to order a menu of his or her own devising, having it served to his or her guests. There is a clue to this: We know that a smallish dinner service of around 160 pieces – too small to serve the entire restaurant – was on board Titanic. It was the costliest and most elegant service on the liner, lavishly decorated in cobalt blue. It seems possible to me that a very wealthy and socially inclined passenger might have been very tickled by the prospect of creating her own menu for a private dinner exactly as if she were at home – and willing to pay very well for the privilege of having a portion of the A La Carte serve as her own dining room for the evening, complete with china no one else on the ship could use.

Does anyone have any information about the A La Carte restaurant – particularly anything that contradicts what I've said here? I would be especially interested in seeing any A La Carte menus from either Titanic (yeah, right) or Olympic that can be definitively identified as being from the restaurant.
 

deegarretson

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Apr 4, 2012
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Fascinating info. I'm new to posting here, and maybe this question has been answered elsewhere, but does anyone know who was in charge of the flowers in the table arrangements and where they were kept? (I'm a plant person) I read that Lady Duff-Gordon said something about daffodils in her stateroom, but beyond that I haven't seen anything about a specific florist/gardener being in charge of the plants and floral arrangements. I'm curious when the tradition started of providing flowers on board.
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Yes, the floral arrangements would have taken a fair amount of work, and there seems to be no info available on how they were created. My best guess is that - like most large ships - Titanic had a ship's florist, possibly more than one. There was probably a system in place involving stewards and stewardesses to get flowers to staterooms, and it seems possible that some crew "doubled up" on jobs, assisting with the floral work for part of the day. There is so much we don't know.

Flowers in upper-class homes, good hotels and better public buildings were an expected amenity at the time. Flowers would have been in First Class staterooms, at least. "Morning flowers" - a little something to wear in a buttonhole - would have been available to men, probably using the First Class dining room as a distribution point. Whether a crew member offered them, or whether a trayful of boutonnieres with the requisite pins was laid out for the taking, is anyone's guess.

By the way, I do not envy whoever took care of the A La Carte's cutlery. The "Panel Reed" pattern that seems to have been used has deeply fluted handles that would have been a bear to keep properly, glitteringly polished. Back then, the standard for silver was different from today - we allow a bit of tarnish in the grooves of a design, to show off the relief work. In Edwardian times, that was considered dirty silver - there were little brushes to winkle every last speck of tarnish out of the relief. Here's a link to the Arthur Price page for "Panel Reed" - tell me if you'd like to clean all the tarnish out of THAT! Click on the photos to enlarge, so you'll get the full, dreadful impact:

Arthur Price of England - Titanic Luxury Cutlery - Arthur Price Cutlery, Tableware and Gifts
 

Bob Godfrey

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Nov 22, 2002
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Dee, you might find some answers in this thread: https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/forums/fixtures-fittings/4988-flowers.html

Nobody signed on for the Titanic with any mention of floristry in their job description, but I imagine that many of the stewards and stewardesses could turn their hands to flower arrangement with reasonable skill when required and they certainly had to make some effort with the flowers sent to individual cabins by well-wishers. Stewardess Violet Jessop recalled that there were never enough vases! Flower arrangements in the public areas of the ship would probably have been installed by outside contractors - in the linked thread I've posted about my mother's recollections of such work.
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Bob, thank you for the link to that thread! One thing mentioned in one of the posts makes perfect sense - the men's boutonnieres could easily have been distributed by laying one at each man's place in the First Class dining room at breakfast. Since seating was assigned, it would have been easy to accomplish.

Speaking of the First Class dining room, one thing that strikes me about it is how much wear 'n tear it was designed to take. The floors were linoleum, the walls painted paneling, and the chairs leather. It was not an uncheerful place, but it was definitely designed with easy cleaning in mind, making the luxe of the A La Carte that much more remarkable. One thing landlubbers don't think about much - one bad roll could spill an awful lot of food, flowers, etc. Titanic, like other ships of her day, was not equipped with stabilizers; those were invented later. In 1912, you took what the sea dished out.
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Another thing that was remarkable about the A La Carte was the number of staff involved - 69 people, 34 of whom were waiters or assistant waiters. While I understand that the A La Carte menu was also available in the Cafe Parisien, that's still an awful lot of staff, given that the A La Carte proper (minus the Parisien) seated fewer than 125, according to the deck plans published by the Discovery Channel. Service must have been exquisite, as indeed it would have needed to be, considering the clientele WSL was targeting by bringing in Gaspare Gatti, the concessionaire who ran the restaurant. There was also a carver, a wine butler, and various other functionaries needed to produce first-chop service.
 

deegarretson

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Apr 4, 2012
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Just wanted to add my thanks to Bob as well for the link to the flowers thread. Daffodils are easy to keep and store if cut before they are open, so it makes sense there would be daffodils on board, particularly in April in England. Since the Victorians really brought the level of greenhouse production of flowers up, I can see roses being available as well. I'm inspired to go back to some of my garden history books to see what else they could have had in abundant supply.
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Dee:

One thing you might be able to shed some light on here - Mahala Douglas's description of the A La Carte tables as having roses and daisies makes it sound as if those two flowers were mixed in the same arrangement. But I don't personally recall field flowers being mixed with roses in arrangements until Jacqueline Kennedy popularized the practice during her time in the White House. Before that, I remember much drearier arrangements with nothing but roses and fern. Do you know if there was a fashion for mixing field flowers with roses prior to the early 1960s? Mrs. Douglas's description makes it sound like only a little baby's breath was missing from the "Jackie Look" in arrangements.
 

deegarretson

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Apr 4, 2012
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Sandy,
I think it's likely they were mixed and still in the Victorian tradition, because the innovations in flower arranging wouldn't have fit in with the traditional style of the restaurant. Here's a description from a garden club study site: http://gardenstudyclub.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/GCV-Handbook-20111.pdf

"Early Victorian designs showed a French influence. They were lighter than later designs with more open spaces.
Rich, heavy colors were mixed with lighter hues and white.
By the Mid‐Victorian era, arrangements were distinct in their casual placement of flowers with little restraint.
They were often overdone with a profusion of different types of plant material.
Late‐Victorian arrangements were even more ponderous, with flowers crowded in elaborate variety.
Containers: Flowers were arranged in ornate, gilded vases, footed trumpet vases, various forms of glass vases of
the period, as well as compotes, epergnes, jars, cornucopia. They were made of ceramic, glass, porcelain, silver,
alabaster, and various metals.
Colors: Bold, dark color contrasts were seen with thick, heavy textures; however, all white arrangements very
popular.
Plant Material: Often scented, plant material was full‐blown. In addition to flowers used in earlier periods,
Victorians used bleeding heart, calceolaria, chrysanthemum, cineraria, dahlia, ferns, foxglove, freesia, fuchsia,
gardenia, heliotrope, honesty, hydrangea, jasmine, lilac, passion flower, peony, salpiglossis, stephanotis, stock,
sweet pea, sweet William, tuberose, verbena and viola.
Design shape: Globe or Circle"

I'm still trying to figure out what type of daisies would have been available then. It's such a generic term for many different species of flowers.
 

deegarretson

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Apr 4, 2012
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Sandy or anyone,
Can you recommend a cookbook with some recipes from that time or later? I'm writing a book set in 1917 and I always seem to include eating in my stories, so I want to be accurate. I've tried the library in my city which is usually a good source, but the only thing I found was something called Edwardian Glamour Cooking, a very strange little book. I have The Last Dinner on the Titanic, but wanted additional sources.
 
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Dee: The White House Cookbook of that era is full of exactly the sort of food upper-crust Edwardians loved. There is a 1913 edition, which would accord well with your time frame. Saalfield was the original publisher, and there are replica editions that were originally produced for discount tables at chain bookstores in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Editions go all the way back to 1887.

Food of that era was very rich and very beige, with lots of creamy sauces. Also, one of the goals of Victorian and Edwardian cooks seems to have been to get food as far away as possible from its natural appearance. A chicken that we might roast would be boned, filled with a forcemeat with truffles, poached, chilled and glazed with aspic to produce a galantine. A raw carrot in a salad was evidently unknown - no, they had to be turned into creamed carrots, or carrots Vichy, or some such. You'll be boggled at the extensive work and intricate processes needed by a cook of that era.
 
Jan 6, 2005
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Oh, and Dee:

It's quite possible the daisies in question were Shastas; they were available at the time and took both the gardening and florist worlds by storm, because they were not picky about being grown - or shipped. Since Titanic's flowers would have been taken aboard in Southampton, they would obviously have been British-grown, but no one loves a new cultivar more than an English gardener. I see no reason why Shastas wouldn't have been the flower Mrs. Douglas referred to, but you may well know something I don't.
 
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Dee: I would also recommend old editions of Fannie Farmer, which go back to the 1880s. The food in them is more housewifely than in the White House Cookbook, less haute cuisine, but still, ol' Fannie expected a lot out of her readers. :)
 

deegarretson

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Apr 4, 2012
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Sandy, thanks for all the cookbook recommendations. That's exactly what I needed.

As far as the daisies go, I've been rummaging around some of my old horticulture books for fun. They might have been Shastas, except I don't know how easy Shastas are to force to bloom that early. I'm thinking maybe they were English Daisies, Bellis perenis just because they would normally bloom in April and May in England. They are much shorter than Shastas though, but would work in a mixed arrangement in a small globe-shaped. bowl. I'm still looking though-may come up with something else.
 
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Dee: If any gardener on Earth could force Shastas in April, my money would be on a British one. The British can grow anything, it seems, even when their climate would seem to be inhospitable to it.
 

deegarretson

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Apr 4, 2012
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Thanks for the link, Jim!

Sandy, I'm very jealous of British gardeners. I have lots of gardening books with gorgeous pictures in them of British gardens, and despair of my garden even coming close. I'm in southwestern Ohio and it's beautiful here now, but by August it will be blazing hot and dry. i see you are in Iowa-I grew up in Mt. Pleasant!
 

Matteo Eyre

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Feb 7, 2013
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I was wondering if anyone knew how much dining in Gatti's restaurant would cost?? For the Widener party do you have any idea as to how much it would have cost him?? And do you think the Italian Waiters would have been given set tables to serve or would in have been a serve everyone kind of situation?? Or would they have worn different uniforms to the other Stewards or would it have been the same??
Thanks Guys
Matteo :)

[Moderator's note: This message was moved from an unrelated topic after the three following messages were posted. MAB]
 
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