The west end of London is still pale and necrotic, but there are points of light. Hatchards the bookseller is open and its memorial to the Duke of Edinburgh is relatively, blissfully, restrained: a portrait in the window, with minimal text for a writer to trip up on his own sycophancy. People are buying whisky on Jermyn Street. The greasy spoon Piggy’s in Air Street survives and if before you merely loitered outside restaurants and ate your food from a bucket you can now sit down, though a strange sort of duck marshal lurks in St James’s Park, and I do not trust him. I do not think he is really watching the ducks.
I celebrate the end of this lockdown at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill in Swallow Street. I choose Bentley’s because it is famous, relatively ancient (established in 1916) and the food is reliable. I want to know who, besides myself, is credulous enough to eat outside on a day when it has also snowed. Bentley’s has established an urban garden with Astroturf, umbrellas, plants and heat lamps. It is not as beautiful as the interior — the real Bentley’s — which is, when I go in, as desolate and beautiful as C. S. Lewis’s Charn, with its shell-shaped lamps, dull silver plate and gloomy, fish-themed art. (Of course, it is gloomy. The fish are dead and this is their only proper memorial.) There is even a painting of Bentley’s with people inside it: Bentley’s before calamity.
It is very cold, but we are jaunty because we are not in our homes, eating an impersonation of Bentley’s from a box (£280 for three or four, depending on your greed), but are actually outside Bentley’s and this is presumably progress. We are crawling in by increments. Next month we may make it to the bar, or even the private dining room.
The staff are jaunty too, though masked, which seems unfair. But we embrace class in Britain always, as the Hatchards window tells us: why not a sort of face class, which disadvantages the young, un-rich and beautiful? Why not take everything that is left? The chef Richard Corrigan stands on the Astroturf shouting. His mask matches his whites. He is rejoicing and shouting his greetings. It is the choked sound of his survival.
I sit down in this made-up restaurant and stare at the menu which, freshly printed, seems absurdly opulent. It no longer seems normal, either, to see £45.50 for pan-roasted turbot, £56 for Dover sole (chargrilled or meunière) and £100 for a Royal Shellfish Platter (lobster, dressed crab, prawn, oyster, cherry clams, mussels and whelks). But pandemic has taught me that, among other things, people will adapt to anything. We adapted to paying £56 for Dover sole in restaurants. We adapted to paying £56 for Dover sole in homes. Now we have adapted to eating Dover sole for £56 on Astroturf in cold weather. And we are the fortunate ones.
And so, in a pantomime we only half remember, and so do wonkily, we ape the eating of before. We order: a superbly fresh English shellfish cocktail; dressed crab; smoked salmon with potato blinis and horseradish; a Goan-spiced monkfish and prawn curry; roast rack of spring lamb with pommes boulangère; a half-grilled lobster with garlic butter and lemon. It is strange to me now, though fine. There are absurd and lovely puddings, which I have half-forgotten too: craquelin choux with hazelnut and a sugary crunch; bitter chocolate mousse with gold leaf and hazelnuts, dense and rich; exquisite popcorn caramel with burnt almond ice cream. Pastry chefs have survived, alongside human idiocy, alongside fear. That at least is something.
Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, 11-15 Swallow Street, London W1B 4DG, tel: 020 7734 4756