A Titanic dining experience

We take a look at what the food was like onboard the Titanic, White Star Line's ill-fated ocean liner

An infectious atmosphere engulfed Southampton’s White Star Dock as noon approached on April 10, 1912. More than 2000 passengers and crew boarded White Star Line’s ‘unsinkable’ new RMS Titanic, completely unaware of the forthcoming tragedy that would ensure their place in history.

Although everyone shared the same ship, passengers on RMS Titanic led vastly different lives – both on land and at sea. And, arguably, nothing showcased the societal gap more than the dining experience offered between first, second, and third class travellers.

As the last stretch of land melted upon the horizon and the celebrated luxury liner steamed away from Europe, RMS Titanic’s inhabitants turned their thoughts towards food and relaxation.

For most ticket holders, meals were included in the cost of a ticket, and they were going to savour every portion.

For the likes of lavishly wealthy John Jacob Astor IV and famed businessman Benjamin Guggenheim, 10-course menus of the finest fare could be expected while relaxing in Louis XIV-inspired restaurants.

The less affluent and historically faceless may not have been offered the same artful or elaborate cuisine while in steerage, but they never went without. Roast beef, plum pudding, and smoked herring were orders of the day among emigrants and the working class.

First-class treatment remains fascinating for contemporary Titanic enthusiasts, but no amount of wealth was able to save the 1,503 souls who perished during RMS Titanic’s final moments.

Despite coming from such distinct backgrounds, the passengers aboard RMS Titanic were ultimately bound together by tragedy. Onboard life prior to the disaster has been scrutinised by historians for decades, but exactly how the opulent resided while the voyage was still pleasant was eventually lost with time’s onward march.

What we can learn about life on RMS Titanic during those initial few days, prior to the lives of hundreds being taken away, is to be found in historical records and written accounts from survivors.

Most survivors were from first-class, creating a rich resource of authentic and factual information regarding RMS Titanic’s wealthier clientele, of which we’ve dived into for a closer look.

The upper-class reading room aboard RMS Olympic; Titanic's identical sister ship. Credit: Picryl

First-class had it all

Before it sank, the highly anticipated RMS Titanic was advertised as the grandest, largest, and most luxurious ship afloat. And they weren’t joking.

Equipped with state-of-the-art amenities for passengers to enjoy, alongside indulgent leisure rooms and grand public spaces, White Star Line’s transatlantic champion was unlike any other vessel of its time.

Yet, the majority of these cutting-edge facilities were only available to those with first-class tickets; the elite of the west. It certainly wasn’t ‘all for one and one for all’, but rather ‘all for first-class and first-class only’.

So, what can history tell us of the lavish conditions bestowed upon Titanic’s one-percenters? Years of research and exploration have allowed us to derive answers to these questions and paint a highly detailed picture of executive life for the privileged few.

One of the only known pictures of RMS Titanic's first-class dining saloon. Credit: Picryl

A luxury dining experience

The Titanic was divided into sections by class, mainly to avoid somewhat disagreeable experiences of enduring social awkwardness, where a millionaire crossed paths with someone of lesser means.

For the aristocrats of yesteryear, meeting their ‘inferiors’ while taking a relaxing stroll on deck would have mauled White Star Line’s sterling reputation.

This subsequently meant that the three segregated classes were also served very different meals to establish societal status. Certain meals were undoubtedly more refined than others.

While first-class gorged on fashionable culinary masterpieces, the second-class passengers instead ate traditional British food, whereas third-class meals were slightly muted – their menu mainly consisted of soups, stews, bread and vegetables.

First-class passengers undeniably cherished the crème de la crème of fine dining throughout their voyage. And having paid eye-watering sums of money for their tickets in comparison to those in lower classes, the culinary experience was designed to appease those wealthy tastebuds.

The food served to first-class passengers was mainly French, as was fashionable with upper-class circles throughout Edwardian times, but also included some prime British staples such as sirloin beef.

Dinner was made up of around 10 to 13 courses, each with a unique accompanying wine, and went on for several hours. For those with double-barrelled surnames and an aloof attitude, dinner was the event of the day – presenting a chance to mingle with wealthy and famous names, and to congratulate one another on being ‘masters of the universe’.

Breakfast was slightly more casual, though passengers were still able to choose from a wide variety of options to start off their day.

The first-class dining room aboard RMS Olympic; identical to RMS Titanic. Credit: Picryl

The last meal

The RMS Titanic collided with an iceberg at 11.40 pm on April 14. Although most passengers had long since finished their elaborate dinner by then, others were partaking in the nightly ritual of cigars and brandy within the first-class smoking lounge. They were among the first people to figure out something was awry.

The final evening aboard RMS Titanic is largely one of speculation in terms of lower classes, but we can mostly piece together the menu and activities of upper-class travellers during those final hours leading to disaster.

What has been confirmed, besides second-class having enjoyed helpings of fig pudding just prior to the collision, is the complete serving of upper-class food on that fateful April evening.

Copies of the first-class menu from April 14 were found amid the debris, with further confirmation from salvaged artefacts and company records. We now understand what most first-class passengers ate as the 'unsinkable' ship ploughed towards oblivion.

An example of RMS Titanic's menu served in first-class. Credit: Picryl

The final first-class menu

The final dinner on Titanic for first-class passengers began as it always did; appetisers - which included oysters, a consommé Olga (a veal stock soup) and cream of barley soup.There was also salmon covered in mousseline sauce and topped with cucumber.

The next few courses consisted of fillet mignon Lili, sauté of chicken Lyonnaise, vegetable marrow farci, lamb in mint sauce, roast duckling with applesauce, and sirloin of beef with chateau potatoes.

Naturally, such grand dishes required side portions, and society’s elite could choose between green peas, creamed carrots, boiled rice, boiled potatoes, and Parmentier.

Punch romaine was then administered to celebrate the halfway point of the opulent meal, serving as a palate cleanser before continuing with the sumptuous dining experience.

What followed was roast squab with cress, cold asparagus vinaigrette, and pâté de foie gras with celery.

After a short break, a stylish selection of desserts appeared with guests able to select from Waldorf pudding, peaches in chartreuse jelly, chocolate vanilla éclairs, and French ice cream.

Finally came coffee and cigars, brought out alongside an assortment of nuts, fruit and cheese. Certainly, a relaxing way to end the night.

An illustration of RMS Titanic's first-class A la Carte Restaurant. Credit: Picryl

Ritz at sea

The most fashionable onboard eatery was Titanic’s À la carte’s restaurant; the greatest room on the ship.

An imitation of the swanky Ritz-Carlton hotel in New York, and capable of accommodating up to 137 diners during one sitting, À la carte’s higher dining experience appealed to passengers with status to upkeep and money to burn.

Most of the decadent elite preferred eating there over the main dining saloon, and it certainly came with exclusivity. An additional cost had to be footed purely to experience the French haute cuisine on offer, atop the crippling cost of a first-class ticket.

On April 14, the restaurant welcomed guests for a dinner party hosted by the Wideners, a wealthy couple from Philadelphia who wanted to honour RMS Titanic’s captain – Edward John Smith. Little did he know that his seafaring career was set for infamy.

À la carte was separate from the main dining saloons. The RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic (Titanic’s almost-identical sister ship) set a new standard as the first British ships to showcase a restaurant of this calibre.

While the first-class dining saloon was not quite as grandiose as the À la Carte restaurant, it was still impressive. An enormous room that accommodated 554 passengers, the saloon was the largest unbroken area afloat at the time. Rival ships could not offer anything in the same league.

Connected to the saloon was Café Parisien, where passengers could enjoy the same food and drinks as the saloon, yet in a chicer atmosphere. This café was particularly popular among young adults who sought something less regimented than the saloon and restaurant.

To enjoy stunning views of the ocean, passengers could also visit the Veranda Café with its large windows and double sliding doors that opened to the promenade deck, reminiscent of an outdoor sidewalk café.

A colourised image of RMS Titanic's first-class gymnasium. Credit: Picryl

Staying entertained

Meals may have been the only truly fixed routine for the upper class on RMS Titanic, but there were many other aspects to help fill the gaps between outrageous five-hour sittings.

A sizeable gym, Turkish baths, swimming pool, lounges, barber shop, smoking room, reading and writing room, squash courts and promenade deck were all at their disposal. A large selection of games and activities were also available to them, including chess and backgammon on the deck, or even shuffleboard and tennis, among many others.

For the most part, these were divided by sex and age, but every first-class passenger had the opportunity to partake in these activities by booking a designated time-slot.

Whether using the latest electric horse machine at the gym, or playing cards on the deck, the first-class passengers had an abundance of exclusive novelties to boast about – using the latest Marconi wireless technology to send telegrams from the middle of the ocean; an incredible feat of engineering for the time.

The living arrangements of the first-class passengers were also very different from those of the second and third class. A typical suite on the Titanic had two large bedrooms, two walk-in wardrobes, a bathroom and a spacious living room for guests.

And the cost to stay in a room like this? They could go for as high as £870, which is equivalent to £79,000 today. An unimaginable price for many.

There were 39 such suites on board at the top of the ship, and they were reserved for only the very wealthiest members of society to reside in.

A colourised picture of Titanic leaving Southampton. Credit: Picryl

No longer even a memory

It is hard to fully convey Titanic’s extravagant rooms and outlandish meals. And, with no survivors left to regale their first-hand accounts, we can only recreate or pay tribute to the incredible culinary achievements and swish designs.

The experiences on board were very different for every individual. The onboard millionaires wouldn’t suffer anything but the best of the best – whether that was in regard to meals, entertainment, or accommodation. Yet, even the richest members of society were powerless in the face of disaster.

The upper-class conditions remain fascinating to those keen to understand exactly how society’s elite lived on board the ‘unsinkable ship’, even if only for a mere couple of days.

Despite its many design flaws, the RMS Titanic was a sight to behold, and those in first-class were able to enjoy all of it in its entirety, from its amenities down to its unforgettable meals – even if the cost was more than merely financial.


Written by Jasmine Venet.

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