Eating in the City
D POSTGATE IDIDN'T know the pre-war City. I've never worked in the City, though I've been unemployed in it, which is not the best way of investigating its eat- ing habits. In the Thirties I was sometimes taken by a lawyer friend to an underground wine bar near to Broad Street Station, called Capataz; it had very good sherry and I think still does. It was populated by a race of young men who were dressed in striped trousers and black coats, with bowler hats and tightly rolled umbrellas. Their faces were usually pale and rather pudgy; their . conversation was of things that I did not under- stand and they used words like `contango.' My friend told me that after their sherries they adjourned to chop houses, of which there were many, and all ate very well, but too fast. I assumed he was right; I could not test his words, for an ABC was the best that I could afford. I have wondered sometimes, however, whether the tradition of City good living before the war is soundly based. Is it perhaps partly based on the recollection of the monster pre-war City Com- pany dinners? Were there all these good chop houses?
Taking it to be true, anyway, it was fated to be only a tradition. The night of December 29 to 30, 1940, the night of the great Blitz, was said to have torn the heart out of the City. Perhaps it did; I don't know; but I am pretty sure it tore its stomach out. Nothing was left when the war ended, and the scene remained bleak for a long time. When first I started compiling the Good Food Guide, nearly ten years ago, I did not find one City restaurant to include in it. And the standard I demanded then was by no means high; it couldn't be.
Things are better now, though not as good as they should be in what is the greatest, or second greatest, financial quarter in the world. The eating houses which deserve mention have preserved one City tradition at least—a quality which you call roughness if you are finicky, grossness if you are dyspeptic, and robustness if you are in a good mood. There is a John Bullishness about the food —it is plentiful, usually simply done, from excel- lent materials, and set down before you with no nonsense, for you to eat quickly. Take, for example, Sweetings (39 Queen Victoria Street), probably still the best place for fish in the City.
A few tables at the back plainly laid with many seats at them, but mostly people sitting up at counters; great Dover soles, big grilled plaice, turbot; bottles of hock and Chablis uncorked already and waiting to be poured out. There is something of the same atmosphere at Coltman's (88 Aldersgate Street), though here the meat is better; it is an education to sit near the carver.
Meat is, of course, the City man's traditional food. It is presented in the proper way for grilling at the George and Vulture—that is to say. the chops and steaks are laid out for you to see and you point to one and that is the one you have done as you wish. The George and Vulture is typical in other ways : it is difficult to find, being in Castle Court, an obscure little place off Lom- bard Street, it has (or did when 1 last visited• it) middle-aged and civil waiters, pew seats and a good vintage port ready decanted and served in brim- ming glasses.
Good roasts, though, rather than grills, were what aldermen of past days preferred. They are rarer than grills nowadays, but there are two places where they can be found. Firstly, Simpsons, which is technically outside the City at 100 Strand, but is completely City in spirit. Acolytes follow great silver-covered trolleys on which are admir- able sirloins, saddles of mutton and roast ducks; follow my advice and stick to these and similar dishes like steak and kidney pudding; do not stray to the kickshaws you may also find on the menu. Second is a new enterprise, the Baron of Beef at Gutter Lane by Gresham Street, where the silver trolleys and the giant beef joints are even more impressive.
This restaurant shows enterprise in another way; it opens in the evening. Like practically all City restaurants of note, it is only open from Monday to Friday, but almost alone it opens from 5 to 8 with a theatre dinner. I can't understand why others don't. The City is no distance from the crowded West End, in a taxi which will run swiftly through deserted streets, or in a car which cart be parked almost where you please. The Avenue, a solid restaurant for solid City men in Drapers Gardens, used to open in the evening but gave it up. The beautifully placed restaur- ant at Bernard Miles's Mermaid Theatre (Puddle Dock) opens in the evening too, but I've never
succeeded in dining there. The place is always booked up—justifiably, I hear.
Besides these places, I should suggest four others to an earnest eater who wished to get a general view of what the City can offer. Firstly, Pimm's in Bishopsgate. The service here is typi- cally City; the food is satisfactory but not sensa- tional; and there is a drink served there which is now internationally famous, Pimm's No. 1, a gin- based drink. There are also Pimm's 2, 3 and 4, based on whisky, brandy and rum; but the con- noisseur passes them by. Secondly, Turner's Brasserie in Broad Street Station Arcade, where City speed is most startlingly exemplified. The food is not typically City (it is Italian), but it is excel- lently cooked; the place is fiendishly crowded; and the proprietor hustles round assuring you you will get a seat in two minutes. You do, somehow, though not perhaps in two minutes. The third is outside my sphere of knowledge, but persons whom I trust inform me that Bloom's in Whitechapel Road has the best strictly kosher food they have ever tasted. This also is a place given to speed. And, lastly, to my great surprise, I find myself writing down the name of the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street. Years ago I had so frightful a meal there, and was treated so disobligingly, that I swore I would never enter the place again. Nor have I. But I have such detailed and unani- mous reports of authentic food cooked in the old English manner—that is, so as to bring out the original taste—and of 'old retainer' service that I shall undoubtedly go there soon to see if British Railways have indeed made something noteworthy out of it.