Down a narrow little alley in London called Wine Office Court, entered through Fleet Street, is a venerable and time-worn pub called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. It is my favorite establishment in the Square Mile, a sentiment I know is widely shared. The Cheese is steeped in history, dating back at least to the reign of King Charles II. (It was built on the ashes of an earlier pub shortly after the Great Fire of 1666.) Often I have enjoyed a quiet lunch here in the atmospheric front rooms or a drink in one of the barrooms after Evensong at St Paul’s. The labyrinth of cellars and sub-cellars was the undercroft of a thirteenth-century monastery that once occupied the site. The pub is popular with City financial workers and attracts sightseers for a pint where Dickens and Dr Johnson drank before them. It has drawn a similar clientele for more than a century.
The Cheese has long-standing literary associations. Samuel Johnson, in the eighteenth century, and Charles Dickens, in the nineteenth, were the most famous regulars, but Oliver Goldsmith, Edmund Burke, James Boswell, William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Mark Twain, Lord Tennyson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W.B. Yeats, and P.G. Wodehouse all refreshed themselves here over the years.
When the journalist Cyrus Redding took up residence nearby in 1806, there were still a few old men who remembered Dr Johnson and his circle meeting at the Cheese years before. In his memoir, Fifty Years’ Recollections, Literary and Personal, Redding wrote,
I often dined at the Cheshire Cheese. Johnson and his friends, I was informed, used to do the same, and I was told I should see individuals who had met them there. This I found to be correct. The company was more select than in later times. Johnson had been dead about twenty years, but there were Fleet Street tradesmen who well remembered both Johnson and Goldsmith in this place of entertainment.
There are mementos of that time in the tavern today. Entering the Cheese through Wine Office Court, one finds oneself in a hallway with rooms opening on either side. To the right is a cozy little barroom where a sea-coal fire burns in the hearth all year round. A notice carved above the door reads, “Gentlemen only served in this bar.” Presumably it is not enforced.
To the left is the chop room. It was here that Dr Johnson was said to have held court. The room remains largely unchanged to this day. Gloomy light from the alley, candlelight from the tables, and the antique smell of the coal fire from across the hall, create a timeless atmosphere. A painting of Dr Johnson hangs over his regular seat at the far end of the communal table along the righthand wall. The space to his left was regularly occupied by Charles Dickens a generation later. A plaque in the wall above the bench identifies Dickens’s customary seat. It is a nice place to sit, in the company of these writers, separated only by time.
Dickens frequented a number of Fleet Street taverns. Much of his working life was spent here, first as a young clerk, at the inns of court, then as an editor, conducting the magazines, Household Words and All the Year Round. A scene in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities is set at the Cheshire Cheese. Dickens writes,
Drawing his arm through his own, he took him down Ludgate Hill to Fleet Street, and so, up a covered way, into a tavern. Here they were shown into a little room, where Charles Darnay was soon recruiting his strength with a good plain dinner and good wine; while Carton sat opposite to him at the same table, with his separate bottle of port before him, and his fully half-insolent manner upon him.
The celebrity of Dickens was such that tourists sought out his old haunts in the decades after his death. The American artist Joseph Pennell wrote a colorful account of the Cheese for Harper’s Weekly in 1887:
On my first coming to London, I had fortified myself, not with a course of English history, but by re-reading Pickwick. My first Sunday morning, about one o’clock, I found myself in Chancery Lane outside the entrance to Lincoln’s Inn, in the company of the proverbial solitary policeman and convivial Ye Olde Cheshire Cheesecat. On my asking the policeman where in the world I could get something to eat—as it is well known one must starve in London on Sunday before one and after three—he gave me the inevitable answer, ‘Down to the bottom, first to your left, under the lamp, up the passage, and there you are!’ After he had repeated these mysterious directions two or three times, and had found me hopelessly ignorant of his meaning, he did what I have very seldom known a London policeman to do—a proof of his loneliness; he walked to the end of Chancery Lane with me, and there being no one in Fleet Street, pointed out the sign of the Cheshire Cheese. A push at the door, and I have passed into another world. I was in a narrow hall, at the far end of which was a quaint bar, where, framed in by small panes, were two very pretty, but I cannot say fascinating barmaids—I never could be fascinated by the ordinary English barmaid. Suddenly a waiter with a very short nose came out of another room and screamed up the stairs: ‘Cotherum steak. Boatherum foozlum mash. Fotherum coozlum, botherum steak!’ and then remarked to me: ‘Lunch, sir? Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. What can I get you, sir? Steak, sir; chop, sir; kidney, sir; potatoes, sir, cooked in their jackets, sir? Yes, sir; thank you, sir.’ Then up the stairs he added: ‘Underdone steak one!’ Then to me again: ‘Walk in, sir. Take a seat, sir. Paper, sir? Lloyd’s, sir? Reynolds’, sir? Yes, sir.’
I had begun to look around me. I found I had stumbled on just what I had determined to make a hunt for. I was in one of the greenbaize-curtained boxes into which Mr. Pickwick was always dropping under the guidance of Sam Weller, whose ‘knowledge of London was extensive and peculiar.’ Unless you have a Sam Weller at your elbow you will not very easily find the Cheshire Cheese, the last of the London chop-houses, even though it is in Baedeker. In the opposite corner was, not Mr. Pickwick, but one of those respectable shabby old gentlemen you never see outside of London. The waiter asked him in the same confidential tone, ‘if he would not have a half-bitter! if he would not like to see yesterday’s Times? A most interestin’ article in it, sir, Mr. Price, sir.’ Then Mr. Price’s half-bitter came in a dented old pewter pot, and along with it an exaggerated wine-glass; and Mr. Price held the pewter in the air, and a softly murmuring stream flowed from the one into the other. Beyond the box I was in I saw other hard straight-backed seats, and between them other most beautifully clean, white clothcovered tables, at all of which were three or four rather quiet and sedate, but after their manner sociable, Englishmen, everybody seeming to know everybody else in the place. Everything seemed happy, even to the cat purring on the hearth, and the brass kettle singing on the hob. Perhaps I should except the restless waiter, who, when anyone came in, rushed to the bottom of the stairs and gave his unearthly yell. Soon down the same stairs came the translation of the yell in the shape of the steak I had ordered, and with it the potatoes in their jackets, all on old blue willow-ware plates.
‘Your steak, sir. Yes, sir. Anything else, sir? Napkin, sir? Oh, serviette! Yes, sir. All Americans like them, sir.’
And so I found for the first time that napkins and bread, freely bestowed in decent restaurants at home, are in England looked upon as costly luxuries.
I have returned again and again to the Cheshire Cheese, and have, moreover, tried to induce others to go there with me. For if the place is not haunted, as it is said to be, by the shades of Ben Jonson and Herrick, of Samuel Johnson and Boswell, the waiter is perfectly willing, for a consideration, to point out to you the stains of their wigs on the wall. It is certain that Dickens, Forster, Tom Hood, Wilkie Collins, and many other worthies did frequent it, while Sala periodically puffs it, and a host of other lights have written about it. In my own small way I have endeavoured to lead some modern junior novelists and poets there, to show them how near they could come to some of the great masters whom they apparently worship so thoroughly. But on the only occasion when I succeeded in placing one probably in the seat of Goldsmith or Herrick, he sniffed at the chops and remarked that if Johnson had had a napkin it would have been better for his personal appearance.
I hardly know myself what is the attraction of the place, for you can only get chops and steaks, kidneys and sausages, or on Saturdays a gigantic pudding, to eat your money’s worth of which you must have the appetite of a Gargantua, or, on Shrove Tuesdays, pancakes. If you should happen to want anything else, you would probably get the answer which Mr. Sala says was given to a friend of his who asked (at the Cock) for a hard boiled egg with his salad: ‘A hegg! If Halbert Hedward ‘imself wuz to cum ‘ere he couldn’t ‘ave a hegg.’ Whoever really cares to see the last of the Old London chop-houses, let him, when next in London, look up the sign of YE OLDE CHESHYRE CHEESE.
The literary history of the Cheese continued after the time of Pennell’s writing. In 1890, W.B. Yeats and Ernest Rhys founded the Rhymer’s Club at the Cheese. P.G. Wodehouse dined there in the early twentieth century. He remarked to a friend, in 1927, “Yesterday, I looked in at the Garrick at lunchtime, took one glance of loathing at the mob, and went off to lunch by myself at the Cheshire Cheese.”
Contra Pennell, the Cheese is not the very last of the Old London chop-houses. The George and Vulture in Cornhill, another favorite of Dickens, is still open for business.