We can enter restaurants on Monday, and I wondered if I should tell you where to eat if you want the most fantastical or expensive or original food in London, or where I will eat in the early days of re-opening. What have you missed? A ball of ice on wheels containing champagne bottles at angles, trundling along like a mad hedgehog? (This was in Monaco). Foam? Hamburgers amid velvets at Louie, a newish supper-club near the Ivy named for Louis Armstrong and Louis XIV both? (Sometimes in life you have to choose, but not in Louie). Balthazar in the over-polished wasteland of Covent Garden, the latest central London district to be ruined by depopulation and money? Anything with Gordon Ramsay’s name falling off it, like Humpty-Dumpty and dust? Most expensive restaurants project a life for you, rather than suggest you live your own; and that is why they are dependent on interior design. You can have an interior life, or interior design, but rarely both. Too many restaurants owe too much to advertising. They are boastful and empty and like a child seeking consolation, I will go to the places I feel loved: to local neighbourhood restaurants.
I thought about them under pandemic, and fretted about them, because they are the rooms I mark myself by. Things happened to me there; sometimes good, sometimes bad. You will have your own, but I will go to Shambles in Teddington, the successor to Spaghetti Junction, which was the first restaurant I loved. I spent a lot of time in Spaghetti Junction in the late 1970s eating small, sizzling pots of lasagne and reading novels, usually bad ones, under tables.
It was on Teddington High Street: a vast, double fronted, bazaar of Italian food, owned by a man called Franco who, to my childish self, had all the charisma in the world. I remember Spaghetti Junction as more exotic, sweet-smelling and brightly coloured than any neighbourhood Italian restaurant I have visited since, but this is partly the amazement of childhood. There was a painting there, which I stared at for hours; of an idealized, twenty-storey high Italian restaurant with hundreds of rooms. It called Franco’s Dream Spaghetti Junction. I didn’t listen to the ending of my parents’ marriage under that painting because I was not in Teddington at all. I was inside the dream Spaghetti Junction and, in some ways I have stayed there.
Spaghetti Junction closed in 1982 – the year we left Teddington, the restaurant and the marriage shut together – but the family opened another restaurant nearby, and called it Shambles. I emailed Shambles recently and told them I could not forget the painting. Franco’s son emailed me a photograph of it, because it is on the wall in Shambles. I had remembered it clearly; everything about Franco’s Dream Spaghetti Junction was accurate. I had only forgotten how golden it was.
I will go to The Coffee Cup café in Hampstead, which sells the best pasta I have eaten outside Italy, in two sizes: one for the hungry and one for the insatiable. The specials are often from the Villa Bianca, a vastly more expensive restaurant next door, with which The Coffee Cup has an arrangement; ask for them. Or the Paradise on South End Green, which everyone calls the Curry Paradise, and where there is always a 40 per cent chance that I will bump into my mother. When I left London for Cornwall, they gave me a whole packet of After Eight Mints with my farewell takeaway. Or the Little Thai, also on South End Green, where I bankrupted myself, or the Churchill Arms in Kensington, London’s original Thai pub, where I spent my early years in journalism scheming while eating No.5 Chicken: Holy Basil and Peppers. (It was quite often the Evening Standard London pub of the year, due to nearness of touch). Their prices have barely risen in twenty years and the food – spicy, dense, rich, wet - will take your head off. The staff resist gentrification by any means.
London is a great city of great restaurants, and everything is available to you. If you want to spend money on food that looks like art, go to Hide on Piccadilly. If you want to gawp at rich fools go to Sexy Fish and demand to see the actual sexy fish, who are in the private dining room downstairs, and are by far the most sensible creatures in Mayfair. If you want waiters in Black Tie bearing golden syrup puddings, go to Rules on Maiden Lane. If you want to duke spot, go to Wilton’s on Jermyn Street. If you want sausage and egg, go to Piggy’s on Air Street. If you want to eat cheese in the park, go to Fortnum & Mason. If you want a ghostly pink subterranean ballroom that produces superb chocolate mousse, go to Brasserie Zédel. But as well as this, support your most beloved local restaurant, if it survived pandemic. Food is remembrance, and identity, and love. I wish you a glut of it in spring.