-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

classic meals >

the Berni Inn meal

prawn cocktail

prawn cocktail
picture courtesy of © Retrowow

       If you wanted a snapshot of what the English liked to eat in the 1970s then all you need to do is look at a menu from a Berni Inn. Berni Inns were a national chain of pub-restaurants founded by brothers Frank and Aldo Berni in 1955. Of course, it took two Italians following an American concept to encourage the British to eat out more but they paved the way for the pub-restaurant chains which are so common in Britain today.

For many years, even into the 1980s, the meal most commonly ordered was prawn cocktail, steak & chips and Black Forest gateau. The starter, prawn cocktail, was prawns (equivalent word in American English  shrimps) on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce dressed with Cocktail Sauce which is a piquant, tomato flavoured mayonnaise. Steak and chips (equivalent word in American English  fries) is self explanatory but the success of Berni Inns was due in no small part to the uniform quality of the steak. Berni Inn's Black Forest gateau was a factory-made interpretation of German regional speciality Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte and comprised layers of chocolate cake separated by bands of cherry conserve and stiff cream topped with flaked chocolate.

By the time Berni Inns had been sold off to former brewers Whitbread in 1990 the brand had gone seriously out of fashion and Whitbread immediately dumped the name and re-launched the restaurants as part of their Beefeater chain. By then, Berni Inns had become a bit like a teenager's parents. They had taught the British how to eat out at restaurants but were an uncomfortable reminder of who we used to be not who we are now.

But has the spirit of the Berni Inn really passed away? I think not. Beefeater are still going strong as are their competitors Harvester and a number of other similar chains. The concept of casual dining with quick, unintimidating service is just as much a modern concept as it was in the 1960's.

Has the menu survived? The first starter listed on Beefeater's 2009 menu is... Prawn Cocktail - "with a tangy smoked salmon and citrus Marie Rose sauce and rustic bread". Steaks never go out of fashion but now they are cooked on a chargrill rather than flashed under a conventional grill. But what about that 1970's throwback Back Forest gateau? It's gone. Instead, we have things like Chocolate Fondant - "a moist chocolate sponge with a rich, melting Belgian chocolate centre".

And what about Harvester? Harvester are owned by Mitchell & Butler who, like Whitbread, have got rid of their brewing interest (in their case Bass) to focus on pubs and restaurants. Prawn cocktail isn't top of their list of starters but it's there all right on their current menu - King Prawn Cocktail - "king prawns, crisp iceberg lettuce and a classic Thousand Island dressing, served with buttered brown bread". Steaks are again a speciality and are also chargrilled to accommodate modern tastes. But is there any sign of Back Forest gateau here? No, it's been pensioned off.

So two thirds of the best selling Berni Inn menu from the 1970's is still alive and well in the 21st century.

Prawn cocktail may now be tarted up with some smoked salmon but Thousand Island dressing and Marie Rose sauce are really only good old Cocktail Sauce in disguise. The steak may be chargrilled and the chips fried in vegetable fat rather than animal fat but we still love steak and chips. It's only Black Forest gateau that's gone forever and maybe that's all for the good. Seafood in piquant sauce and charred beef are long established English traditions. Beefeater's Chocolate Fondant is much more like an old fashioned English pudding than an ersatz version of a German torte so maybe that's why Black Forest gateau didn't stand the test of time.