Pleasures and perils of eating out
It isn't just cut-price plonk that is being bought in Wandsworth these days. A fair amount of vodka gets on the credit card bill; all part of what shuddering sociologists and delirious property dealers call the middle-class invasion. Not all of Wandsworth, of course, but that part which creeps' up from trendy New Kings Road
where natural wood front doors are opened these days by disconcertingly sleek au pairs. Sure, sign of affluence is the sprouting of antique shops with repro old Aladdin lamps and vast beds heavy with spurious brass.
If you are prepared to do a little looking, you will find an eating place or two as well because restaurateurs have a way of panting indecently on the scent of developers. And those eateries you do find probably won't be half bad in a slightly bistro-ish sort of way which, after all, is the market in an area reasonably well-heeled without being absolutely filthy rich. Of course, it isn't happening just in Wandsworth but in pretty well all newly forming suburban ghettoes. The pattern is more or less the same. The proprietor has probably converted from a little shop and consequently hasn't nearly enough space but, as far as decor goes, has been sensible enough to be dead simple and do the thing in pine with colours that don't exactly yell at you.
There is no luxury and the service will be a little amateurish with maybe the owner's wife popping home to relieve the baby sitter just when you fancy your second brandy. The menu is apt to feature things like `chef's own pate' which is a bit pretentious because you know it is everyone else's pate as well, but there is no earthly reason why the casserole, while not being in the least 'special' as claimed, will not be perfectly decent value. In these places, the selection of vegetables will be careful and there will be heavy reliance on the safe and respectable plate of mixed salads.
The carafe wines do perfectly well here and the Customer is expected to drink them out of thick no-nonsense glasses probably. donated by well-wishers taking advantage of free offersfrom filling stations. Gastronomic
'sophistication won't rise above Entrecote chasseur and the puddings will be irreproachable fruit pies. In this sort of place you will be paying around £2.50 to £3.00 a head and you will be made to feel wanted but won't be in the least fawned over. Unbarbered waiters looming up from flickering shadows cast from candles stuffed in bottles won't be the scene, either. Because bistros, aren't bistros any longer, but are called' Annabel's or Anthea's and you get handwritten menus, rather than the bill of fare chalked up on a
blackboard like school. ,
Those places which have inherited the old bistro tradition are at least able to keep some sort of distinct identity when it comes to decor and management style, but a bit up the scale price-wise are establishments that look more or less identical whether you are nibbling a gristick in Edinburgh or Coventry or Cardiff or London. Such eateries don't have proprietors but rather frightened, managers likely to be flung out if they aren't able to make so many' covers per week. These are establishments which are part of vast corporations hugging hotels and conference centres and motor
service areas and launderettes and off-licences and umpteen other outlets one suspects they never knew they had. The hard core of these restaurant holdings are often steak and wine houses with butter wrapped in packets you can't open and the burgundy served in those hideous baskets which point up the bottle like a rocket on the launching pad. Functional is the kindest way to describe the decor; no nonsense about comfort oi anything of that kind because there's no profit in it if you and your friends will persist in lingering.
But let's not sneer too much. You will know exactly what you are getting, because the laminated menu card will tell you fulsomely and in English. You may even know what the dish looks like before you get it, thanks to coloured photos obligingly dotting the margins. "A fine dry wine from the heart of the Medoc country," trumpets the list en-, couragingly, going on to scrape the bottom of the copywriter's barrel with 'agreeable,' muscular' and (God help us but I hare seen it) 'bonny.' Better, I suppose, than 'garden-fresh' for peas which I have also seen.
This sort of restaurant knows its market with the unerring accuracy of a homing missile. Good sensible English boardroom fare is what you'll get — and very fair value provided they don't over: cook the steak and boil all the taste out of the coffee. At the very least £5 a head is what you must expect to pay, which is a bit much if you are just looking for a goodish meal with a chum and don't want dimmed lights or anything, but a fairly reasonable sum if you're climbing up the executive ladder and can't let rip before the next promotion.
I must confess I have a lot of sympathy with the aims of touchingly enthusiastic young couples who set out to run a restaurant, but that d,)esn't mean I don't question their wisdom. Such people would not dream of trying to build a bridge without an engineering diploma or go for a flip in a Jumbo after twice round the local airfield on a weekend, but they will cheerfully step right into a profession where the pitfalls come crater size and where there are sharks slavering for a nice new. kill. Still. I'll carry a torch for them because they will give better service than the fag-end of sonic chain. It has become old hat to raise your eyebrows at the wonderful variety of nationalities you encounter with. restaurants. I gather you can now get Beirut delicacies in Edinburgh, so what is left to surprise? But we are well catered for. A London tourist guide picked at random lists restaurants with food the way it is (or so they say) back in Portugal, Armenia, Israel, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, Denmark, Hungary, Mexico, Jamaica, Russ1,9 and ... but the point is proved if it ever needed proving. This is all splendid and there's a lifetime of
• discovery ahead if you are not Yet sated as a gastronomic gladiator.
6418tator December 1, 1973.
"Join the Tortilla and Enchiladas brigade," urged a repellently hearty friend a while back and that's normally a surefire way of getting me to do nothing of the sort, but then I Would have missed the Whitewashed adobe walls and Chunky Spanish-style tables of at least one excellent Mexican restaurant not a million miles away from Piccadilly. And that would have kept me from a memorable 4sada a la Tampiquena and I bet You don't know that is a charcoal-grilled fillet steak, seasoned With pepper, lemon juice and all sorts of spices. It cost £1.50, but Pleasures as good as that have to be paid for.
Similarly, my wife is glad that She now knows a part of Serbia Called Vojvodia. Actually, she's never been anywhere near the Place which I am glad about because I am sure it is nothing like our own dear Costa Brava, but it does produce, so she told me on One occasion, an excellent
Balkan wine. And it was in a ualkan restaurant that I learnt Pancakes and walnuts can make excellent bedfellows. They are in a dish called Palacinke S Orasima if You want to know. Such revelations make eating out supremely Worthwhile. I carp not.
But I do carp at tolerating selfconscious 'national' entertainment as part of the evening. Tortillas are fine, but castanets don't belong to Peterborough. Dolmades I can take, but plate-smashing, While all right on the Piraeus I suppose, is decidedly not on in a Streatham basement. I do not include singers, because good _singers are welcome everywhere. Cabarets are by no means always good or welcome. While on the subject of entertainment, let me Warn you that there is quite an industry these days for companies of actors supplying entertainment solely for restaurants. The place Where they operate will be called something like the Tudor Room or the Caesar Baths or the Viking nut. There's the resident king or • ron or chieftain, surrounded by "is serfs and jesters and if you do Wander all innocent into one of those places you musf expect to Lget dragged into the depressingly u ogus goings-on and don a kilt or rnerally make an ass of yourself. will be thought unbearably tuffy if you don't but to my mind „ It is all terribly reminiscent of the Worse sort of hotel Christmas and a social menace generally. Sweaty bierkellers where shirtsleeved insurance salesmen pers.pire over villainously expensive ,lager and a weedy specimen in lederhosen puffs away at a 59ueeze-box don't exactly appeal either. But, please, I don't turn up rnY nose at all showmanship. I ,,rernember one perfectly ordinary !ndian restaurant saved because dle waiters wore turbans of truly
, niptuous colours and weren't e usual gloomy specimens peer • Out of empty establishments ;!!gnified only by a tired-looking Towup of the Taj. The proprietor Taguised the ordinariness of the
iicoodb by serving some of the best arnpagne I have ever had.
Champers with Indian food is nonsense and he knew it and I knew it, but I admire his cheek to this day and there will be a soft spot for the place always.
I am only too conscious of a gap when it comes to this business of categorising restaurants. Where, I frequently ask myself, is the place I can take my mother to where the service is immaculate without being fussy, where the atmosphere is gentle and unhurried and where the bill is kind? The family restaurant is becoming as rare as the family doctor. Where is the head waiter who knew more secrets about one's father and one's brother than he would ever tell and who would treat you and your maiden aunt as if you were spending a fortune when he knew perfectly well you weren't? If you find such a head waiter and such a place grapple them to you like hoops of steel. But it is a rather square thing to go looking for in the switched-on 'seventies.
Which brings me to my final category; one I wish I didn't have to be brought to at all. The unabashed expense account abomination where four waiters bring the hors d'oeuvre trolley and you know that yOur bill is going to help pay the salaries of at least two layabouts who will bow and scrape and contribute precisely nothing., Here I speak from experience. It was in those dear — did I say dear? —dim days when feeding your face could be put against tax. A friend asked me to lunch and told me to pick where I wanted to go, so I chose an internationally famous name. The food and service were sublime. It must have cost the earth.
The point is that I was determined to go back on my own, even if it meant I could never afford to eat again. On that visit the service was slow and surly, the food reasonable enough, but it was flung at me with a sort of insolent politeness that invited assault. What really got me was the naked way in which obvious regulars were being nannied about how they wanted their steaks cooked and there was great flap around a cabinet minister who .iappeared to be lunching off ',mahogany, whisky and roes on toast. It wasn't James Callaghan. but that man surely did restaurant standards a bit of a favour when he relegated guzzling to the nondeductable. Professional eating I call it; it's best left to ad men and movie moguls and they can keep it. (When next you are left stranded in the bar because your table isn't ready and out of sheer boredom you order your third double pink gin and realise you have already paid out an amount which would have bought you a :decent lunch elsewhere, realise you've been had for a mug and don't do it again ...)
Looking at the restaurant scene generally, I'd say there are a lot of good things, not a few bad, plenty of really excellent intentions and, I'm afraid, ever increasing • expense. Not a bad record at the end of the day. How like the rest of life, in fact.