Memories of Chatham cafes by Win Rolfe

"Gourmet" meals before the 'pizza' invasion

    As a refugee from the Dockyard canteen food circa 1947 - 1958, I along with friends developed a wide knowledge of cafes in Chatham, plus a few to remember in Old Brompton, Gillingham and Rochester. It is suprising how far afield we managed to roam during our three quarters of an hour lunch break from down near Pembroke Gate. A canteen meal of uncooked fish in well cooked batter, followed a few days later by soggy cabbage with an added ingredient, boiled dishcloth, that was the last straw. The waitress started to remove my plate to scrape off the extra and then intended returning it so that I could finish my meal !
     From then on a group of us tried many of the cafes around at that time in places as Watts Place, a few more, the Allied Restaurant opposite the old Ritz cinema. I believe they sported flags from other countries decorating the windows. The food was not bad, given the restrictions on quantity and variety, but was too far from base for regular visits. Di Marcos was a regular stop for snacks, soup and coffees. Then Staggs, fish and chip shop, that was to the rear of the Medway Pie Shop, on the right hand side facing towards Rochester, down a side alley with a long queue in all weathers. The novelty soon wore off. Late 1940's we sometimes went to Terenzys ice cream parlour. Mrs. T. produced excellent egg or cheese salads. She could even make dried potato edible. At one time Marks & Spencers had a milk bar serving sandwiches, milk etc. very handy when doing a spot of shopping. The thing in those days we always reckoned to sit down to a meal, never ate on the hoof as people do these days. George Street off Military Road, now there was a smashing cafe, popular with local taxi drivers, hemmed in by taxis, you queued on the pavement for a place at a tiny table, all squashed into one room. The food was good , if you liked chips with everything. Roast, meat pie, meat pudding the chips didn't suffer to much gravy. 

    At one time I went with two or three friends to the Royal Marine pub in Old Brompton. Early form of pub lunch, we were sorry when they stopped catering. In Old Brompton High Street was Coppers* fish & chip shop. They really knew how to cook. You were always provided with two forks for cutlery, that was a popular place. There was also a working mans cafe, brightly coloured oil cloth on the tables and the safest thing to eat was corned beef, egg & chips with peas, smashing! Gillingham provided us with Lefevres cafeteria always very busy although the menu was basic. Now and again we tried the restaurant over one of the banks on a street corner in Gillingham High Street. Unfortunately Gillingham was short on eateries for our palate, it was a pity as it was easy to get to within the time allowed. Now and again a visit to Rochester if we could slip out of the office early. Elizabeth's was the place for good food, elegant surroundings. Then there was the Buttery, one of the few surviving sections of Leonards, after the store was demolished. We dined well at the beginning of the month and scraped by the last few days. I doubt we spent much more than £1 a week all those years and bus fares were low it was all possible. One last thought - In one of the cafes we always dodged the table where the vinegar bottle contained a preserved moth. The bottle was refilled from time to time, but the moth stayed in for many weeks. I believe another place kept cockroaches as pets, but we survived and thrived. Bad cooking was never a problem in any of the places mentioned.

* Eileen Bullen emailed that she  lived in Brompton High Street during WW2 and recalls that: "The Chippy in Brompton High Street was 'Bakers', Coppers were Fishmongers only".