I’m not sure when it happened, when I stopped the frantic chasing of the new. But I suspect it was in the late 90s–early 00s, the heyday of the restaurant-as-nightclub: all ambient beats, low-slung designer furniture, and resting models on the front desk. (They’re still going strong, these bastions of Sex and the City wannabes: check out Novikov or Sushisamba in London. Or anywhere in Vegas.)
I’ve never liked nightclubs – at least, not ones like that, where perspiring Danny DeVito lookey-likeys grope beautiful, blank women – so why would I want to eat in one? Round about the same time, visits to the masters of fayn dayning started coming across less like sybaritic blow-outs and more like a test of fortitude and endurance.
Perhaps it all started in San Francisco and the Napa Valley, where I managed to score a reservation at Thomas Keller’s lauded French Laundry. The whole $600 experience has since boiled down to a bit of a blur: outstanding memories not his legendary Oysters and Pearls, but the waiter’s solemn and rather frightening announcement that, to get the full French Laundry experience, “you need to put aside at least four hours, madam”. That, and the fact that we had to go for an outdoor constitutional halfway through dinner, after nearly regurgitating the butter-poached lobster.
On the same trip we went to the Tadich Grill, supposedly San Francisco’s oldest restaurant. From the moment the neon sign twinkled at us out of the Financial District night, it was love. The love deepened over simple, mesquite-grilled halibut, local Dungeness crabs, and an oyster and bacon Hangtown Fry – all eaten in wooden-lined booths, whilst being cosseted by white-jacketed waiters, most of whom wouldn’t see 50 again. This was altogether a whole lot more fun.
Combine this with a desire for Michelin recognition, and the whole shebang becomes about as much fun as a night out with Piers Morgan and Lordsuralan Sugar
Travelling around the world so much, I found my fetish starting to set fast. There’s nothing worse than, say, a restaurant in a small South Tyrolean town that’s desperate to be seen as one of the cool kids: it’s like the rich tourist who hits London and tricks herself up in head-to-toe Burberry check. Combine this with a desire for Michelin recognition, and the whole shebang becomes about as much fun as a night out with Piers Morgan and Lordsuralan Sugar. Joints with one Michelin star in small foreign towns should come with a giant banner reading simply “AVOID”: I can’t count the times I’ve toyed with peeled peppers attempting to do a Mondrian on a comically-shaped plate in a restaurant where the house style is “grimly clenched”.
But, oh, what larks I’ve had in the old-timers. There’s a reason these establishments have hung around over the decades, and it’s not because they have a wicked way with the spherification kit. In Barcelona, I loved 7 Portes, a wooden-panelled fixture for over 170 years, tobacco-stained and atmospheric; its grumpy waiters have served everyone from Picasso to Antonio Banderas. Dinner here – “rich man’s paella”, perhaps, where all the shellfish is peeled for you – paired with several ones-for-the-road from equally venerable cocktail bar Boadas adds up to some kind of vintage nirvana.
Or Ravintola Savoy in Helsinki, accessed via a faceless, rather dingy office block. A creaking lift whisks you to the top floor where your jaw drops to your chest: its intact 1937 Alvar Aalto decor is a living artwork, the waiters look like refugees from a 40s film noir and the views over the city are unparalleled. I forked in my vorschmack, tingling with an almost erotic design-spod’s excitement.
I howled with laughter at the wonderfully kitsch, untouched, almost tiki-bar bamboo décor of La Cantinella, its windows looking out onto the Bay of Naples. Suited, formal staff served a cast of characters that wouldn’t have looked out of place in The Sopranos – it sounds like a cliché, but was entirely true – whilst “O Sole Mio” played in the background without a hint of irony. Thankfully, the hotshot young chef’s food was every bit as contemporary and brilliant as his surroundings were comically, and endearingly, outdated.
One of the ironies of hipster culture is the perception of unconventionality, but with their beards and braces, they all look alike. They should take some tips from those lox-loving Upper West Side matrons: boy, do those gals know how to turn a head
In New York, I love hanging with the hipsters in deepest Bushwick’s grunge palace, Roberta’s. But nothing beats the bliss of a window seat and a plate of the specialty pastrami salmon and scrambled egg at 100 year-old Barney Greengrass in the Upper West Side, a mecca for lovers of fustiness. One of the ironies of hipster culture is the perception of unconventionality, but with their beards and braces, they all look alike. They should take some tips from those lox-loving Upper West Side matrons: boy, do those gals know how to turn a head.
In fact, America does these old places better than almost anywhere on earth: places like the spooky, scarlet-lit Formosa Café in L.A, haunted by the ghosts of Lana Turner and Frank Sinatra. Or Vegas’s frankly bizarre Peppermill’s Fireside Lounge, where night owls neck cocktails round the eponymous firepit amidst décor that would cause Austin Powers to raise an eyebrow on grounds of taste. These two capture the occasional, delicious sleaziness of the genre. I sent an acquaintance to Peppermill’s for a few bathtub-sized mai-tais and he returned dazed and bedazzled, full of stories about dwarves dressed as Elvis.
Admittedly, for some of these places, it’s time to die a natural death. I can’t find it in my heart to mourn the relatively recent departures of Beoty’s, a singular Greek-French place in Theatreland that specialised in flambéing every single menu item table-side, or of Biagi’s, an outstandingly lugubrious Italian behind Oxford Street, beloved of Kenneth Williams. After a particularly mournful lunch there, I was no longer surprised that the poor chap was eventually moved to top himself.
A fellow restaurant critic and I are currently involved in eating our way round London’s time-forgotten restaurants. So far, we’ve had appalling cheese-sweat nightmares from over-fonduing at the kitschy, cowbell-decked St Moritz in Soho, been astonished at the assured Tuscan cooking at Vasco and Piero’s, and are plotting an outing to Sweetings and The Gay Hussar. I’m contemplating becoming a regular at what is billed as the city’s oldest French restaurant, Covent Garden’s eccentric Mon Plaisir. We figure we should use ’em or lose ’em. If we don’t, we condemn ourselves to a restaurant future that only features the likes of Sushisamba’s Nobu-on-stilts nonsense. And that would be a crying shame.
Marina O’Loughlin is the restaurant critic for Guardian Weekend magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @MarinaOLoughlin