I love my food. Unfortunately eating is a duvet I draw great security from. For this reason I have always made sure that I am not sitting too comfortably. Unlike certain acquaintances who cry into a three o’clock in the morning fry-up because they think they are fat, I choose to exercise a little restraint. At my age, unlimited party food no longer permits me to maintain the kind of physique I desire. However, after a long day of enduring the horrors of clerical confinement, the treat of eating out is an experience I never deny myself. Or at least that was until I realised that dining out in London is more like sloping out in Paris.
When I first moved to the capital my favourite eating haunts could be found nestling side by side at the end of Old Compton Street. One too many visits however soon left me gagging into a paper bag. The StockPot and its twin Pollo are famous for providing the West End with cheap food marginally more appetising than a tin of Pedigree Chum. The former provides the ultimate school dinners experience, while the latter’s house speciality is Spam in a rich creamy sauce. These are the kind of restaurants where you can never be sure if your meal has been on a low light since Tuesday, or if a waitress will have to be dispatched to the nearest Tesco for an emergency microwave dinner whenever you place an order.
Therefore, sick of ordering food that exits the body looking exactly the same as it did on the plate, my next option has been to frequent the bourgeois cousins of the McDonald’s restaurant chain. Unfortunately, as with all middle class aspirations you always pay more for less. Pizza Express may have spared no expense on providing extravagant surroundings but has clearly forgotten to invest any money in its culinary expertise. Even then, for all its lavishness, the décor still conjures up visions of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen destroying somebody’s home. As regards cuisine, the meals appear to have been cobbled together à la Ainsley Harriot in a rush to beat the Ready Steady Cook clock. Even Fern Britton wouldn’t bother sticking her ever-present finger into one of these pizza pies.
Another close relative, Dôme, manages to hide its culinary crimes behind its bar façade. Luring unsuspecting diners in with a cheap set menu and drag queen gimmicks, it soon disappoints with skinny chicken and chips dished up in a basket. Having sworn never to return, I graced the Old Compton Street outlet just last week with the freshly sacked Sally. Both of us still reeling from her untimely departure, the purse strings would only allow for this particularly close at hand false economy. Besides, when hunger sets in the human memory is very short. After nearly choking on the boniest fish ever and cracking our teeth on slivers of frozen Sara Lee gateaux, we headed elsewhere to fill the gap with coffee and cake.
I may like to think of myself as a down market version of that famous freeloading luncher Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, but unfortunately I am always obliged to pay. The only time I have ever visited the likes of Mezzo was with an Evening Standard special offer. Even on this occasion, all participants were herded away from the Gucci-healed cream of Soho society to be served a menu of oven chips and serving suggestion-style dishes. This kind of service may be good enough for Princess Anne who famously turned up at the Bluebird waving a £5 meal voucher from The Times, but just like the January sales, you can never find anything you want on a set menu.
The scourge of London dining, Aberdeen Steak Houses, may trap tourists with their lurid red lights but Londoners are equally suckers for a cheap deal at a posh dive.
If you want to pay for a decent meal head out of central London: Clapham, Islington, Stoke Newington, anywhere. London’s West End is tantamount to prison; once you are there it is virtually impossible to leave. For this reason the food available is exactly what you would expect the incarcerated to be served. The capital’s visitors know no better than to throw themselves into the throng of it, whilst the siren of shopping lures its inhabitants. The British will put up with whatever they are given; serve them salad with a shard of glass and you’ll find it lying on the edge of the plate at the end of the meal. Rudeness and a lack of quality are tolerated because it is a language that all Londoners understand.