The great retro food revival

Posted by
Anna Brech
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

If you thought prawn cocktails had vanished into the ether alongside shoulder pads and Bananarama chart hits, think again.

Retro food is having a moment in culinary circles right now, as gourmands and trend-setters delve into the past to breathe fresh life into timeworn classics. Dishes that last saw the light of day when Betty Crocker ruled the roost (think meatloaf and grilled rice pudding) are reappearing on food blogs and restaurant menus, in a context that's only semi-ironic.

Retro Feasts, a Mayfair-based pop-up, is the latest dining spot to cash in on the trend. Its 19-year-old creator Luke Thomas gives one-time party dishes such as Eton Mess and cheese and pineapple sticks a contemporary twist, offering up a playful reinvention of bygone cuisine.

Over at Paesan, a new Italian restaurant in Exmouth Market that celebrates "simple, honest, real food", the Negroni is the comeback cocktail du jour. This suave tipple conjures up images of 1950s high life and Paesan's version of it comes with homemade Sweet Vermouth with lavender and chamomile.

Meanwhile, The Gilbert Scott restaurant in London St Pancras has launched a cookery book with chef Marcus Wareing, which re-imagines traditional British dishes such as cock-a-leekie pie and Mrs Beeton’s barbecue chicken.

Celebrate the comeback kids of the kitchen with our top ten retro recipes from culinary experts, covering everything from Fifties housewife favourites to stalwarts of the 1970s dinner party:

1. Prawn Cocktail

Once upon a time, this classic entrée was king of dinner party suave. It evolved in the States and made its first official appearance in 1959, as an "original shrimp cocktail" sold in a sundae glass at Hotel Nevada in Las Vegas. The Brits were quick to snap it up, using Marie Rose sauce atop a bed of prawns and iceberg lettuce for a sophisticated starter that remained popular into the Eighties. Here, Luke Thomas, creator of Retro Feasts restaurant in Mayfair, offers up his twist on the time-honoured seafood dish:


  • 400g North Atlantic prawns (already peeled)
  • 1/4 head of iceberg lettuce finely shredded.
  • 1/2 avocado (peeled and diced)
  • Few pinches paprika

For the Cocktail Sauce

  • 100ml mayonnaise
  • 2 tbsp tomato ketchup
  • 1 tbsp brandy
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • drop of Worchester sauce to taste
  • drop Tabasco sauce to taste
  • salt and pepper


1. For the cocktail sauce mix all the ingredients together in a bowl, season with salt and pepper to taste.

2. Loosely fill the glasses with dressed shredded lettuce and avocado and then arrange some prawns on top. Finish with a dollop of sauce. Sprinkle with a pinch of paprika and serve.

2. Kendal Mint Cake Choc Ice

There's something wonderfully kitsch about Kendal Mint Cake, the energy-giving sugar bar that's long been the stoic companion of hikers and mountaineers. It garnered overnight fame in 1953, when Sir Edmund Hilary and his team endorsed it on their first successful ascent of Mount Everest (they even ate a bar at the summit). In their book The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food, chef Marcus Wareing and Chantelle Nicholson, general manager of The Gilbert Scott restaurant, re-imagine the Kendal Mint Cake in choc ice format:


  • 300ml milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 25g honey
  • 1/2 x 400g tin condensed milk
  • leaves from 25g bunch of mint
  • 20g Kendal Mint Cake, chopped finely, plus more to decorate if wanted
  • 100g dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids), broken up


1. Make up the ice cream base by mixing all of the ingredients together in a bowl and blending with a stick blender.

2. Pass through a fine sieve, then churn according to your ice cream machine manufacturer’s instructions. Scoop into a chilled stainless steel bowl and fold through the mint cake. Place in the freezer to firm up.

3. Spray six mini loaf tins (3.5 x 9.5 x 6cm) with baking spray, then line the longer sides and the bottom with baking parchment cut exactly to the length of the tin, leaving an overhang that will cover the ice cream. Place the tins in the freezer to chill for 10 minutes.

4. Stir the ice cream mix again, then spoon into the chilled tins. Using a palette knife, smooth the top, ensuring the mix has gone into all corners and edges. Fold the paper overhang on top of the ice cream. Return to the freezer to freeze solid.

5. Cut six parchment paper rectangles 9cm wide and 18cm long. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Using a palette knife, spread a thin layer of chocolate over each paper rectangle.

6. One by one, turn the frozen ice cream bars out of the tins and peel off the parchment. Starting 3cm in from the edge of the chocolate, place the side of the ice cream bar on the chocolate, then roll the ice cream over to wrap up in the chocolate-lined paper. Return to the freezer.

7. When set, carefully peel off the paper and trim the ends using a hot, sharp knife. Garnish the ice cream at the open ends with some microplaned Kendal Mint Cake if you wish.

From The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food by Marcus Wareing and Chantelle Nicholson, out now in all good bookstores. Book online at The Gilbert Scott Restaurant and Bar at

3. Negroni with homemade Sweet Vermouth

Classic and cultured, the Negroni is inextricably linked to a bygone era of effortless glamour and cool; think Mad Men meets The Talented Mr. Ripley. It began life at Bar Casoni in Florence in the early 1920s, when Count Negroni asked a barman for strong Americano, made with Sweet Vermouth, Campari and soda. The barman replaced soda with gin and the rest is history. Paris Mattocks, head barman at Paesan, a new Italian restaurant in London's Exmouth Market, talks us through his take on the comeback cocktail:


  • 25ml Beefeater Gin ( for a more fancy flavour use Tanqueray No.10 Gin)
  • 25ml Campari
  • 25ml homemade Sweet Vermouth - recipe below
  • Garnish with big fresh slice of orange


1. Fill a tumbler with 4-5 blocks of ice.

2. Add the Gin, Campari and homemade Sweet Vermouth.

3. Use the peel side of the orange to wipe around the rim of the glass (to give a burst of orange flavour sip by sip), and use the orange to mix the drink slightly (not too much, you don’t want to water down the notorious kick of the Negroni).

4. Leave the orange in the drink and serve.

Homemade Sweet Vermouth

This recipe makes close to one litre of Sweet Vermouth


  • 1 orange
  • 3 1/4 cups white wine, divided (a decent Pinot Grigio is the perfect wine for this)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 tsp dried chamomile
  • 6 cardamom pods
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 tsp dried lavender
  • 1/4 teaspoon wormwood leaf (find online at Amazon or at health stores)
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup boiling water
  • 1/2 cup brandy
  • 1/2 cup sweet sherry
  • Muslin cloth or coffee filter
  • funnel


1. Peel the orange and set aside the rest of the orange for another use.

2. Pour 1 cup of the wine into a cooking pot. Add all the orange peel, cinnamon stick, chamomile, cardamom, star anise, lavender, and wormwood and cook on medium heat until it comes to a boil, roughly around 5 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Strain out solids into a bowl using Muslin cloth and a funnel (the Muslin cloth helps to get all the little bits that a strainer might miss) and return liquid to the pot.

3. In a separate pot, pour in the sugar and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, to caramelize it. Once the sugar melts into a caramel-colored liquid (roughly around 5 minutes), turn off the heat and let caramelized sugar cool.

4. Bring the water to a boil in a kettle, then measure 1/4 cup and slowly pour it into caramelized sugar, stirring as you pour.

5. Add the remaining wine (2 1/4 cups) to the herb-infused wine that you set aside earlier and bring it to a boil. Pour it slowly into the pot of caramelized sugar syrup, stirring frequently to integrate them (the sugar should be melting as the hot wine comes in contact with it; it is crucial that there are no lumpy burnt bits of sugar in the mix). Add brandy and sherry, then let cool in a fridge preferably for 24 hours. Pour the cooled mixture into a bottle, seal and store in the refrigerator. It will last for around one month.

4. Rice pudding

Rice pudding doesn't enjoy the most glamorous reputation - perhaps because many of us associate it with school dinners where it was hacked in a stodgy mass from the bottom of a giant pot. Often dismissed as bland, this queen of comfort foods dates back to Roman times where rice pudding with goat's milk was used for medicinal purposes. It's been dipping in and out of fashion ever since, with additions and variations. Betty Crocker swore by a grilled version with canned peaches and maraschino cherries, while this recipe from Luke Thomas at Retro Feasts stars a more traditional vanilla pod and cream combo:


  • 100g round pudding rice
  • 50g caster sugar
  • 500ml milk
  • 250ml double cream
  • 1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped


1. Place the milk, cream, sugar and vanilla in a heavy bottomed pan and bring to the boil. Add the rice and stir. Turn the heat down low and slowly cook for 30-35 minutes stirring regularly to prevent the rice from catching on the bottom of the pan until the rice has cooked through and the liquid has thickened slightly. Remove the heat and keep warm.

2. Serve the rice pudding in warm bowls with strawberry jam on the side, alternatively spoon a little into the centre of each bowl.

5. Welsh Lamb Meatloaf

The humble meatloaf is a perfect example of how an erstwhile housewives' favourite is being reinvented in a modern and semi-ironic context. This quintessentially American dish evolved as a budget option to stretch meat availability during the Great Depression and remained popular as rationing kicked in during World War II. The domestic heyday of the 1950s and 60s gave it a new leash of life, with ingredients like mushrooms and sherry making an appearance and sides of mashed potato and gravy. With a growing number of restaurants bringing their own sophisticated spin to meatloaf, here's Ocado's take on it:


  • 550g Welsh lamb mince
  • 8 dry cured streaky bacon rashers
  • 1 slice white bread, thick
  • 2 garlic cloves, squashed
  • 2 sprigs fresh mint, leaves removed
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme, leaves removed, plus extra sprigs for the tin
  • 3 eggs, hard boiled
  • 1 knob butter
  • 1 leek, quartered lengthways


1. Preheat oven to Gas Mark 3, 160ºC, 325ºF.

2. Throw the slice of bread, garlic, seasoning and herbs into a food processor. Whizz together until the bread is mixed to a fine crumb. Place in a large bowl and add the mince.

3. Line the bottom of a 1 litre or 2 pint terrine or loaf tin with 3-4 rashers of streaky bacon laid lengthways. Add the fragrant thyme sprigs and fill the terrine with half of the raw meat mixture.

4. Now carefully lay the hard boiled eggs on top of the meat, place the leeks lengthways over the eggs. Cover with the remaining mixture and lightly press so that it fills every corner, then cover with another 3-4 more rashers.

5. Half fill a roasting tin with boiling water and place the filled terrine tin in the centre, then cover with foil. Place in a preheated oven and cook for about 1 hour until the mixture is set and cooked through, then serve in thick slices.

6. Gin Blitz

The noble gin and tonic has never really fallen out of fashion and dates back to the British colonisation of India in the 1700s.

It was discovered that adding quinine to tonic water helped prevent malaria, and gin was added to the concoction in order to mask the sour taste of the quinine.

By 1958, gin and tonics were popular enough for James Bond to drink four of them in Ian Fleming's hit novel Do No.

The classic drink is given a retro edge at The Churchill Bar on London's Portman Square, where 1940s décor abounds and the Gin Blitz is served featuring City of London Gin – distilled on Fleet Street at the first new distillery in The City for over 200 years:


  • 50ml City of London Gin
  • 20ml Lemon juice
  • 30ml sugar syrup
  • 5 drops Ricard
  • 2 bar spoons dried lavender
  • 1 egg white
  • splash of tonic water
  • garnish with a lemon twist and lavender sprig.


1. Add the first six ingredients to a shaker and dry shake, add ice and shake again.

2. Double strain into ice filled glass - use a Cut Highball glass to serve.

7. Cheese and pineapple sticks

Aha, the cheese and pineapple hedgehog. This foil-emblazoned centrepiece was a staple of the 1960s social scene and it's been doing the rounds at children's parties ever since. Restaurateur Luke Thomas gives the beloved snack a modern polish - featuring goat's cheese and coriander seeds - for diners at Retro Feasts:


(cocktail sticks for serving)

  • 120g goat’s cheese
  • ¼ fresh pineapple
  • crushed coriander seeds
  • 100g plain flour
  • 150g breadcrumbs (panko)
  • 3 egg yolks


1. Crumble the goats cheese and roll it into 8 gram balls.

2. Cut the pineapple into 1.5 cm cubes.

3. Whisk the egg yolks with a little water.

4. Double Pané the balls of goats cheese by first rolling them in flour then egg yolk followed by the breadcrumbs.

5. Deep fry the goats cheese balls at 180 degrees until golden in colour.

6.Begin assembling by adding a goat’s cheese ball to a cocktail stick, followed by a cube of pineapple. Finish with a generous scattering of coriander seeds.

8. Sixties scampi and chips

"Scampi in a basket" was the ubiquitous pub grub of the 1960s and 70s, closely accompanied by chicken and chips, curry and chips, sausage and chips... you get the idea. Little wonder this no-frills dish won the heart and minds of the British nation: comprising large prawns covered in fried breadcrumbs with potato wedges and Tartare sauce on the side, it makes for an unfussy, tasty and filling meal. This is Ocado's take on a timeworn classic:


  • 5 eggs, 4 for salad cream and 1 beaten for scampi
  • ½ tsp English mustard
  • 1 pinch caster sugar
  • 2 tbsp white wine or cider vinegar
  • 4 -5 tbsp single cream
  • 4 medium potatoes, such as Maris Piper, King Edward or Desirée (about 1kg)
  • 2 -3 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1 tsp fine lemon zest
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  • 20 large raw prawns
  • 4 slices multigrain bread, made into breadcrumbs
  • 1 pinch salt, (to season scampi and salad cream)
  • 1 pinch pepper, (to season scampi and salad cream)
  • 1 bunch curly parsley, to serve
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges to serve


1. Boil 4 eggs for 9 minutes. Once cold, peel the eggs and remove the yolks.

2. Mash the yolks with the vinegar and mustard in a bowl until as smooth as possible.

3. Slowly add the cream until you have a smooth sauce.

4. Heat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/gas 6. Peel the potatoes and cut them into long chips of an equal width.

5. Put the chips in a large pot of salted cold water and bring to the boil. As soon the water comes up to the boil, drain the chips and tip them onto a bit of kitchen paper to dry.

6. Tip the dry chips into a large bowl. Add 2-3 tbsp sunflower oil and toss to coat all the chips with a covering of oil.

7. Spread the chips on a large non-stick baking tray. Roast for 35 - 45 minutes, turning occasionally. When cooked they should be golden brown and crisp with a light fluffy centre.

8. Place the breadcrumbs on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 10 minutes, then remove and mix in the lemon zest. Wipe the baking sheet clean and oil lightly.

9. Place the beaten egg in a shallow dish. Place the flour in another shallow bowl.

10. Rinse the prawns thoroughly and dry well with kitchen paper. Dip the prawns into the flour, then into the egg and then the breadcrumbs and place on a baking tray.

11. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes or until the prawns are cooked, serve immediately with the chips and salad cream.

9. Piña Colada

In 1954, bartender Ramon "Monchito" Marrero was challenged to come up with a suitably exotic and delicious signature drink for guests at the Caribe Hilton’s Beachcomber Bar in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His answer - the Piña Colada - quickly became synonymous with the promise of sunshine and retro beach glamour. A host of stars including John Wayne and Gloria Swanson flocked to the hotel to sample the fabled rum and coconut fusion, and in 1978 the Piña Colada became the official drink of Puerto Rico. Here Jack Williams, head mixologist at Late Night London, shares his version of the iconic beach beverage. You can sample it at Kanaloa club on 18 Shoe Lane, London.


  • 25ml Bacardi Gold
  • 25ml Koko Kanu
  • 5ml lime juice
  • 10ml lambs rum
  • 35ml pineapple juice
  • 2 pineapple rings
  • 30ml coconut cream


1. Pour the Bacardi Gold, Koko Kanu and Lamb's Rum into the blender.

2. Add coconut cream, lime, pineapple juice, and pineapple rings and blend until smooth.

3. To serve, pour into a cored pineapple.

10. Eton Mess

Legend has it that Eton Mess got its name at a cricket match at Eton College in the 1920s, when a clumsy Labrador dog sat on a picnic and squashed a strawberry Pavlova. Others contest that the dessert is a school tradition that dates back to the 1700s. Whatever its origins, Eton Mess is a firm favourite of the British summer food scene and manages to be both retro and timeless in its appeal. Retro Feasts' Luke Thomas adds raspberries to the traditional strawberry formula:


  • 500g strawberries
  • 500g raspberries
  • 400ml double cream
  • 1 vanilla pod
  • 55g caster sugar
  • 4 readymade meringue nests


1. Chop up half of the strawberries into quarters

2. Blend half of the raspberries into a puree.

3. Mash with a fork the other half of the strawberries and raspberries into a pulp.

4. Crush the meringue nests.

5. Add the sugar to the cream then whisk until it forms peaks.

6. Mix the meringue and raspberry puree into the cream.

7. Layer up in chilled glass with the chopped strawberries.

Words: Anna Brech


Share this article


Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.