The University Women’s Club, Mayfair
2 Audley Square
020 7499 2268
by Seggolène Royal
In the United States, from whence I hail, the word “university” is synonymous not with learning or advancement, but with breakfast. Eighteen year-olds across America leave the bosoms of their families to go to “college,” living in dormitories and having to look after themselves for the first time with no parents to supervise. Those dorms feature dining halls where the students have paid to take part in meal plans which allow them unlimited amounts of food per meal. Half buffet-style, half food court, in my day you could get any variety of foods at a moment’s notice, from pizza to burgers to boeuf bourguignon, although today the better schools probably have sushi bars and gluten-free options.
Breakfast is the meal of champions, however, and that is where we all packed on the infamous Freshman Fifteen. An amuse bouche of yogurt, an appetizer of Lucky Charms, French toast with scrambled eggs and bacon for the main, a side order of waffles, and for dessert a granola bar on the way to class. I look back to those breakfast days of 1996-7 and feel at once revolted and nostalgic.
Given this implacable association between breakfast and university, it seems appropriate to discuss the breakfast on offer at the University Women’s Club in Mayfair. It was founded in 1886 by Gertrude E.M. Jackson, a graduate of Girton College, Cambridge, who got together some of her best friends from school and decided to start a women’s club to rival the men’s clubs from which they were barred. After moving around to several different addresses, in 1921 the ladies of the UWC adopted the present building, which has the distinction of having been used as a model for the house in Dorothy L. Sayers’s 1936 detective tale The Haunted Policemen.
I was able to visit the UWC earlier this month thanks to my alma mater, Barnard College, which has worked out a special arrangement: when visiting London, we can go and stay there for a discounted rate. The rooms are spartan but comfortable, the dining room cheerful and elegant. I did not run across any haunted policemen. Left to my own devices in a cushy upstairs hallway, I took a few minutes to commune with the Victorian founders, whose photographs hang on the richly striped walls. Those august women stare out in sepia, unsmiling, unaccustomed to arranging their features for a camera. What were their breakfasts like, I wondered?
Indeed, what are breakfasts like in English university dining halls? I have some vague supposition that they are overseen by stern-faced dons in gowns, Lucky Jim meets “Oliver!”. I was not to find out. When I went, the University Women’s Club was uniquely peopled by the American alumnae of Seven Sisters schools, who seemed to be there on some kind of reunion. They compared notes on former schoolchums:
“Do you remember Dorothy? Dorothy Feinberg, is her maiden name?”
“No, Feinberg. Nancy was in Cushing, we were in Cushing together.”
“Oh, well, I was in Strong, that’s why I didn’t know her.”
Cushing? Strong? A Google search reveals these to be the names of residence halls at Vassar College. These women would have graduated back when, like Barnard, Vassar was an all-girls school. I was the youngest person there, except for somebody’s granddaughter, who wore a black velvet bow right on top of her head, a calf-length black dress, and black lace-up boots. She looked exactly the way the Victorian founders’ granddaughters must have looked.
I read the paper and smiled at my fellow diners as they discussed their respective hometowns: Boston, New York, DC. The waitress indicated a buffet where I could serve myself. The breakfast was not as copious as it would have been at an actual university, but it was sufficient. For £6.50, there were croissants, various cereals, including muesli, Rachel’s yogurt (reason enough to make a person move to England), a bowl of fruit, toast, coffee, several kinds of juice, and tea. Unfortunately, given that I have developed a gluten allergy since my university days, I had to skip the toast and the heavenly-looking jams in favor of muesli in yogurt with honey. (Yes, there is gluten in muesli, but not as much as in toast, or so I tell myself.) The muesli was quite good, except that it was filled with enormous chunks of dried yellow fruit the size of small dominoes. If you like that mystery yellow fruit, this must be a huge bonus. I however prefer a more even ratio of dried fruits to grains. I isolated the offending fruit in a corner of the bowl: no harm done. The coffee was perfectly nutty and the milk warmed. When I left, I took a banana for the walk to class.