The menu might not be to the modern taste - roast heart and gooseberry tart, anyone?  – but for a generation of Scots, dining out in style meant a trip to the local no frills British Restaurant.

Hundreds of the state-subsidised diners sprouted up in wartime Britain, offering cheap, nutritional meals to ensure no-one - regardless of ‘class’ or income – went hungry.

They were so successful, that at one point there were more British Restaurants dotted around the UK’s city centres and high streets than there are now branches of burger giant McDonalds.

Often roomy enough to seat hundreds at a time – some even decorated with pricey works of art and fresh flowers - diners tucked into soup, meat, two veg and pudding for little more than a shilling.

Run thanks to a combination of Government and local authority support, volunteers and paid workers, they were so effective that some kept serving until the early 1970s.

Now the idea of a ‘food for all’ restaurant movement backed by government funds is being revived as a potential solution to today’s problems surrounding austerity, food poverty and nutrition.

The wartime restaurant model will be discussed at a conference early next year looking at how state-subsidised public diners might offer nutritional, low-cost meals in a modern landscape.

It will explore how it might correspond to many Scottish Government’s policy objectives, including 20-minute neighbourhoods, ending the need for food banks, local food growing strategy, community empowerment, the Good Food Nation ambition, and healthy diets. 

The Herald: Communal diners were established during the First World WarCommunal diners were established during the First World War (Image: Prof. Bryce Evans of Liverpool Hope University)

The debate has been ignited by Nourish Scotland, a charity which campaigns for better access to quality food for everyone. It suggests that the wartime British Restaurant model could provide a route away from charitable food aid and crisis responses to food insecurity and poverty such as food banks and become as much a part of the social landscape as public libraries, leisure centres and schools.

As well as ensuring access to nutritional and price-capped meals, it suggests a new wave of public diners could form an important focal point for communities, providing work and volunteering opportunities, reducing loneliness, and removing some of the stigma surrounding food poverty.

Nourish Scotland say other countries currently offer similar style state supported dining, such as in Mexico City, where the local government created a Community Dining Rooms programme. Involving government, private sector, community, and others, it has evolved into a network of almost 300 dining rooms serving “comida economica” or “economic food”.

A meal of rice, beans, and meat with vegetables costs 10 pesos, or around 50p.

While in Germany and the Netherlands, subsidised canteens at colleges and universities are open to the public, offering hot meals for around £3.50.

According to Anna Chworow, Deputy Director of Nourish Scotland, February’s conference aims to look at how British Restaurants and other similar state-supported dining models work, and whether they might help deal with modern food issues in Scotland.

“Many people know about ‘dig for victory’ or ‘make do and mend’. But not too many know about British Restaurants,” she says.

“They were state-subsidised, affordable public diners, serving healthy meals to communities across the country. Some continued into the 1970s as municipal diners.

“The context around them has changed. Eating out now is not so much of a novelty as it used to be and the food landscape is different, so you couldn’t create a carbon copy of them.

“But there’s interest as to whether something similar could work today.”

British Restaurants had their roots in the First World War, when around 1000 national kitchens or ‘communal feeding centres’ were run by volunteers aiming to offer cheap food for people struggling to cope with raging food inflation.

They re-emerged during the Second World War, when Sir Winston Churchill insisted in a 1941 letter to the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton, that they should be rebranded. “I hope the term ‘Communal Feeding Centres’ is not going to be adopted. It is an odious expression suggestive of Communism and the workhouse,” he wrote.

“I suggest you call them ‘British Restaurants’. Everybody associates the word restaurant with a good meal.”

Anna says his intervention set a level of ambition that elevated the public diners to “centres of civilisation”, with walls decorated with bespoke murals and some with art loaned from national collections.

“Often the state would support the capital to get them established and they operated a blended model, where people would pay for the cost of the ingredients and a little bit to cover the cost of some labour and volunteers in kitchen as part of the war effort,” she adds.

The Herald: A National Kitchen opened in Argyle Street, Glasgow during the First World War - a precursor to British RestaurantsA National Kitchen opened in Argyle Street, Glasgow during the First World War - a precursor to British Restaurants (Image: Prof Bryce Evans)

“They were places people might go because they were struggling to make ends meet, or they might go because rationing meant they were struggling to get ingredients together to cook at home. Or, because they were just convenient places to go.

“But they were not just places to go to eat,” she continues. “It was about lifting people’s spirits, coming together in hard times and also aspirational.”

While the menu choices of stewed meat and veg might be basic by today’s standards, the emphasis was on providing healthy dishes, overseen by the Ministry of Food and based upon regional preferences and health.

“There was a real push and pull between the government nutritionists, the restaurants and the people running them,” she adds. “The nutritionists would be pushing for more vegetables, and restaurants would be saying they needed to provide a pudding.

“There was a debate – which still exists today - about what we should be eating versus what we wanted to eat.”

British Restaurants became commonplace in the heart of towns and cities across the country, says Professor Bryce Evans of Liverpool Hope University, who has researched the movement.

“There was this refreshing notion to construct something beautiful for the working classes,” he adds. “They appointed designers from art schools to design some, and artwork was loaned out.

“For diners, instead of rationed butter, eggs and bacon from corner shops, these were places where they could get a full cooked meal.

“This was a very different approach to food for all, affordable and in the middle of the high street. And if it had to displease a few private retailers, so be it because this was a public health matter.”

Far from downbeat ‘soup kitchens’ the diners catered for all walks of life, including office workers who did not have the benefits of a workplace canteen.

By the time the first British Restaurant opened in Glasgow in February, 1942, at 66 St Vincent Street, there were already 41 others around Scotland and 1300 across the UK.

It offered a three-course meal for a shilling and paved the way for more. Before long one had opened in Weir Street for Kingston residents, and in Smith Street to cater for Scotstoun locals.

By 1943 there were 46 British Restaurants across the west of Scotland, with six in Dundee and others, from St Andrews in Fife, to Stirling, which offered space for 240 diners, and Falkirk, where a YMCA converted hall offered room for 140.

In the West of Scotland alone, the restaurants dished up nine million meals every week, with a typical menu consisting of lentil soup, stewed steak, vegetables, rice pudding and prunes. Other dishes made use of offal such as heart, kidneys, and tripe.

Anna adds: “The idea is to look at the history of British Restaurants, and how they operated in Scotland, and to look at the prototypes that already exist – there are lots of community and social enterprises offering blended modes of volunteering and paid employment,” adds Anna.

“We have libraries, parks, transport and public health infrastructure in Scotland, but there’s something missing for food, and we need to come together to figure it out.”