Today was my best friend’s 50th birthday. It’s quite a challenge to find somewhere which is just right for lunch out on a Monday in London, especially when we had been advised to stay out of the centre of town for the Tour de France. [France, you say?] She plumped for Chicken Shop in Tooting, a great choice as it turned out, perfect for a Monday lunchtime. Finger licking good, for all the RIGHT reasons.
She’s a foodie, my bessie mate. And I used to be. When I was an accountant I lucked into a niche where I looked after quite a number of London’s top restaurateurs. At the time it was glamorous, exciting and fun. I then met a man, a chef, whose hobby was eating out. Makes sense, non? So that’s what we did. For a decade or so we ate out in all of London’s top restaurants where either he was known as a member of their team, or I was. As I said, glamorous, exciting and fun. Those were the days, my friend.
And while for my chef pal and my best friend it’s all about the food, for me it ain’t. It’s about what Mickey Flanagan would call “the ambience”. Or not even really that. For me, it’s about having a lovely time with the people I love. And if a restaurant can make that so, well I am in heaven. For me its about knowing how to order off menu in Joe Allen and how late we can get fish & chips at The Ivy before they put the chairs on the tables. It’s happened, though not at The Ivy it must be said. We’ve had late fish & chips there, but the chairs on tables thing? That was somewhere else. And it’s about romantic times and elegance and celebrations and private rooms and treats from chefs and knowing canny little secrets.
The restaurants in the world where I have been most in heaven at various different times for various different reasons include The Ivy, Bibendum and the River Cafe. I will never tire of The Ivy. Never. Best service in the world, bar none. And total dedication to my comfort. That’s how I like it; when I look up because I want something, I want you to notice, and that’s all. It ain’t hard, you just have to care as much about your customers as I do about my clients. The Ivy do this effortlessly. Well, its effort for them but you just can’t tell. For me? No effort whatsoever, just a blissful experience.
Bibendum was all about the food, still is. And the River Cafe… well, it took us a year to get a reservation and I was so happy when I eventually ended up there I cried with happiness most of the way through, cried into my peach Prosecco. I think that was my birthday now that I come to think about it. Second time we watched a small child being sick through holes in the rattan seat of a chair. Not quite so magical, but we can’t blame the restaurant for that although it did somewhat take the icing off.
I’ve also had fun at Le Pont de la Tour, Assaggi, The Savoy and any restaurant run by my friend Nigel Sutcliffe who was head of the front of house team at The Fat Duck when I was their accountant. Nigel gets it. He knows about my comfort. And not just mine, yours too. Run don’t walk to any of Nigel’s restaurants. Nigel is a lifelong friend and restaurant genius.
But my best restaurant in all the world is on a tiny island off St Martin, Pinel, in the Caribbean called Karibuni. Heaven. Expensive heaven, but that’s just how I like my restaurant heaven. My lobster is pulled fresh from the sea just moments from my sandy feet and everything is French and perfect. It’s another place I could cry with happiness. At Karibuni you can arrive for lunch by boat or even by yacht – we haven’t yet, but there’s a dream to hold out for. Watery, fishy, Frenchy restaurant Heaven.