Retro is always a comparative term. These days ‘old’ seems to mean ‘no longer on TV’ and league tables of ‘best ever’ seem to feature the current front-of-mind in a disproportionate way. For me though, retro refers to a time in the 60s and 70s when eating out was a real treat. Fanny Craddock was beginning to awaken British home cooking but meat and two veg was still the standard fare.
Outside of the major cities eating out pretty much meant a meal in a hotel or a small local restaurant. Pub food was pie and chips or sandwiches with a few notable exceptions. The standard meal out for my family involved around a dozen of us going to a local hostelry for a meal. As I recall tablecloths were scarce and the usual arrangement was a wooden table with cork-backed placemats. As for the food, those who suggest British food hasn’t moved on enormously should pay heed…
Starters were generally, soup of the day, melon, pate, grapefruit segments or fruit juice. The pricey option was prawn cocktail. All accompanied by a bread roll. My children are astonished that there was a time when tomato juice was considered a starter. Don’t forget though that this was the era of ‘entertaining the boss’ with cheese and pickled onion on a cocktail stick and glacé cherries were daring. Prawn cocktail is one of those things which I still love to this day but feel slightly embarrassed having it. It is certainly a retro food in my book. One of the regular places we went to began offering spaghetti Bolognaise as a starter. It never appeared as a main course but the sheer novelty encouraged me to have it on a couple of occasions. It was dreadful looking back; a very hot watery sauce around mince sitting on shop-bought pasta.
The main course was steak – no choice just a 8oz cut which was cooked medium-well unless anyone raised an eyebrow. As an alternative you could have breaded plaice (almost certainly frozen) served with lots of garden peas, chips and tartare sauce. I don’t think I have eaten plaice since. Gammon and egg or pineapple was always there and, for those really hungry for a meaty feast, the mixed grill. The mixed grill piled steak, sausage, liver, mushrooms and possibly kidney onto a plate..with garden peas and chips. No sauce, just meat and more meat. There would probably be a pie but I don’t remember ever going for that. The retro food options came out of a selection from beef bourguignon, duck a l’orange, chicken Kiev (almost certainly frozen) and steak Diane. This was the golden age of creamy, alcohol-tinged sauces. I don’t remember there ever being a vegetarian option but I I dare say you could just have the vegetables. I portrayed the standard as peas and chips but I do remember some stainless steel serving dishes of boiled vegetables on the side too as an option. There was also gravy with everything. After the vegetable shad been delivered someone would come round with the gravy boat and lash it everywhere.
Dessert tends to be a crumble, an apple pie, and then the retro peach Melba, banana split, pavlova, Black Forest Gateau or some ice cream. The standard accompaniment was single cream or custard and the ice cream was almost always served in a sundae glass or a stainless steel bowl with a fan wafer stuck in the top.
This was my expectation, with the addition of a roast and Yorkshire puddings on a Sunday throughout my childhood and I loved it. Fashion, and choice, and embarrassment have left a lot of forgotten retro dishes. On a couple of New Year’s Eves we have cooked a family meal of retro food and really enjoyed the dishes. The nostalgia works for me and the teenagers are trying these for the first time. Give it a try, all those old cookbooks can still contain some gems.