RESTAURANTS AS THEATRE
0.: BLACKPOOL AND BOURNEMOUTH NN`N.N.
LONDON, Paris, New York. Breakfast at Claridge's, lunch at La Coupole, dinner at Le Cirque. The life of a fashion journalist is as cushy as their £600 Chanel sheepskin bags. They may have to teeter from show to show on their Manolo stilettos, wear bare legs down Fifth Avenue in the rain and break their nails fighting for gilt chairs at Dior, but they have location, darling, and that's what counts.
Political journalists have no such luck. For us it's the seaside. Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton. The B&Bs of Britain. Instead of sea breezes at the Met Bar and scones at Brown's, we have peanuts and lukewarm wine at the War on Want fringe meeting and bran flakes at the bowel cancer charity breakfast. Our lunches are egg mayonnaise bridge rolls, pickled onions, Scotch eggs and pick 'n' mix sweets. Our hotel rooms reek of late-night take-away onion bhajees. No cap- puccinos, no black pepper, no parmesan shavings. No wonder Tony Blair has been muttering about deserting Blackpool. In his sparkling new Britain, the Labour confer- ence would move to the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, across the green from Westminster Abbey. The journalists could have lunch at Le Caprice and he could nip home to No. 10 for spaghetti carbonara with the children between speeches.
But after eight years of B&B-ing I'd hate to give it up. I've got used to hotels saying, `Sorry, madam, we can't deliver you six newspapers, they might get nicked, but there's a communal Daily Express in the foyer.' I see getting food poisoning at the National Farmers' Union event as par for the course, and when Richard Branson's train catches fire and we're three hours late, I just crack open another can of his revolting Virgin Cola.
There are three advantages to the sea- side. First, the astoundingly good break- fasts, second, the bracing walks along deserted beaches — necessary to get through six nights of drinking — and third, there's no escape. Blackpool has always been my favourite. I once went up a week early to write a profile of the town. The Police took me under their wing, lent me a miniskirt, and we went clubbing. I learnt to ballroom dance with an elderly gentleman op for the pigeon-fancying conference, and discovered that Blackpool serves a quarter of a million sausages a year and ten tonnes of baked beans. This year was Labour's last fling with the northern pier. My newspaper had been kicked out of the Stakis conference hotel by Tony's cronies, and so we were staying ten miles from the illuminations in upmarket Lytham St Anne's. But you could still smell the Manx kippers at the front door of the Clifton Arms Hotel. The communal break- fasts began with stewed prunes, rhubarb or apricots, homemade muesli, bowls of rasp- berries and strawberries and freshly squeezed juices, all laid out on a table next to the Coco Pops. Porridge and cream came to order, as did kidneys, sausages, bacon, black pudding and haddock kedgeree. But eggs 'done any way' and kip- pers were their speciality. The poached eggs dribbled when stabbed, rather than gushing all over the plate, and the fish was firm, rich and moist. The waiters, who didn't seem to speak a word of English, had all learnt to provide lashings of piping hot white toast in silver racks (not a flaccid croissant or shrivelled Continental pastry in sight).
If only they had served breakfast for din- ner at the Stakis it might have been edible. The hotel had one restaurant, a carvery. Ministers in search of inspiration for their speeches were queuing up alongside jour- nalists and star-struck delegates. A buffet was provided for the first course: herring rollmops, Russian salad and Waldorf salad, all floundering in mayonnaise, while a few shrimps swam at the bottom of a watery bowl. Having tipped chocolate sauce over my limp lettuce leaves, mistaking it for bal- Is your 5,000,000 year old Coelacanth fresh?' samic vinegar, I went straight on to the main course. There was turkey roll, stuffed pork or overcooked beef. All had shrunk under the harsh lights. The alternative was a yellowing cod mornay. The 'garnish' was a watery cauliflower cheese. Peter Mandel- son managed to eat two Yorkshire pud- dings, and Geoffrey Robinson manfully slathered apple sauce over his grey slab of meat, but at £35 a head it was scandalous.
Blackpool has two restaurants in the Good Food Guide. The September Brasserie is the only establishment to have discovered, and now discarded, sun-dried tomatoes in favour of twice-baked souffles. The River House, ten miles from the Blackpool Tower, serves foie gras, truffles and the Duke of Westminster's grouse. But with tables booked 12 months in advance and MPs stacked up like sticks of rock, it's impossible to keep any secrets. The New Seafood Restaurant is where the 'horny- handed sons of toil' mix most easily with new Labour. They ran out of sparkling min- eral water on the first day of the conference because the 'ponces' from down south won't drink tap water. The menu is unpre- tentious (with the occasional lobster ther- midor) and all fish come with chips. The grilled Dover sole is the best in Britain.
Café Noir (pronounced Noah) has only been open two weeks, but it churns out heart-aching Seventies retro dishes. The prawn cocktail is more succulent than Leith's in Soho. The breaded garlic mush- rooms were crisp and juicy. We had the restaurant, and an extremely attentive wait- ress, to ourselves. 'Please don't tell anyone about us,' she begged. 'We don't want it becoming crowded.'
And what about Bournemouth? The breakfasts weren't quite as lavish at the Carlton Hotel. The mandarin segments and pineapple slices looked as though they might have been scraped off last night's gammon. The £4.50 cheese sandwich was a few pieces of grated cheese buried in mango chutney, with a dollop of vinegary coleslaw on the side. But I would come back for the stupendous view across the cliffs. The Highcliff Hotel serves a stewed cup of tea with a carton of milk for £1.50, but both hotels matched Conran in their ability to serve hundreds of picky delegates good food every night for a week.
One evening I escaped to Chewton Glen, in nearby New Milton, for terrine of turbot with a light tomato mayonnaise (average), fillet of beef with a perigourdine sauce (mine was overcooked, my neighbour's tan- talisingly pink) and crème bralee (worthy of the hotel's five stars). But it didn't feel right. The whole point about these resorts is their proximity to the salty sea and the sickly candy floss, the illicit afternoons spent nip- ping into the double-seat cinemas, and the morning strolls to work along the prome- nade. If Mr Blair abolishes the B&B confer- ence, I shall have to become ballroom danc- ing correspondent or take my husband on seaside weekends instead.