If I had to answer one of those questionnaires where they ask ‘Where and when were you most happy?’ images of restaurants would flood my mind. Of course you can think back to periods of your life that were exciting or full of contentment – my first year working at the BBC or the days after my children were born – but for the experience of pure, intense happiness lunches or dinners in restaurants are at the top. There was the meal at Raymond Blanc’s first gaff, Le Petit Blanc, in Summertown on the outskirts of Oxford. The fish terrine that melted in the mouth, the beurre blanc that was perfectly seasoned. I can still see that plate. If I concentrate hard enough I can even taste it. Then there’s the place in Italy that Claudia Roden led me to (it came via the serialization of her book on Italian food. She recommended her favourite restaurants in Italy alongside the recipes). It was in Norcia in Umbria. Down a back street, almost impossible to find, through a doorway hung with a curtain of ribbons, it wasn’t remotely smart. Tiled floor, rickety dark wooden chairs, red paper napkins. And yet I cherish the memory of that meal. Tomato and basil salad, sausages with Umbrian lentils, vanilla ice-cream with a fresh cherry sauce (cooked in a frying pan just before it was served) and copious amounts of grappa. I can barely remember what I did the day before yesterday but I can remember these meals in startling detail.
I didn’t grow up eating in smart restaurants, or indeed any kind of restaurant. Trips out were for high days and holidays and were usually to grill rooms, or the dining rooms of provincial hotels. But I loved them even then. I like the ritual. The greeting, the handing over of the menu, the consideration of the dishes while having a drink (a Fanta, when I was a child, a kir – usually – nowadays). There aren’t many rituals in our lives that are quite this deliberate. And as a diner you are only vaguely aware of it – it soothes you in some incantatory way, but you are not as aware of it as the waiter or maître d’. Watching Russell Norman on The Restaurant Man recently he explained the whole process to a would-be restaurateur. Amazingly it hadn’t occurred to her that there was a process. It starts with those wonderful words, ‘Good evening Madam. Can I take your coat?’ Then there is the whisking of diner to table – the best places make you feel as if you are gliding towards it, no matter how tired or overwrought you are. ‘Would you like a drink before dinner?’ Then, hopefully swiftly, your drink, some water and the menu is brought. This is the waiter’s job. For the diner it is the passage that takes him or her to another plane. In restaurants, for me anyway, time is suspended. They are oases of pure relaxation (or should be). That doesn’t mean they have to be quiet. They can be noisy, exciting places and you can still feel at peace in them. A restaurant is not in the real world. People can tell me endlessly to ‘relax’, to ‘chill out’ and I don’t. But seat me in a restaurant and give me a menu and my worries are suspended. I have wondered whether this is because I am momentarily cared for, or made to feel important. That is part of it. And it’s also a Pavlovian reaction (Ah there comes the menu! Bliss! I can drop my shoulders). Then there’s the surroundings. High end joints are supposed to cocoon you in luxury, that’s all part of their appeal. And yet that isn’t so important to me. In fact a bland, classy dining room – designed to within an inch of its life – will not necessarily make me happy, even if the food is good. What I am really after – and of course it comes through the food, which has to be good (that’s a given), but it also comes through the atmosphere, the way in which you are served – is care. I don’t just mean good service but a sense that everything about the place – from the furnishings, which might be humble, to the greeting, which should be sincere – is the best it can be. I love perfectionism. It’s what makes me respect food producers and famers, but it’s also what makes me love chefs and restaurateurs. When I wrote a book about gastropubs, way back when they were a new thing, I spent 18 months traveling all over Britain and Ireland looking for the best places, but I wasn’t just looking for the swankiest, or the pubs which were Michelin star level, I was looking for the pursuit of perfection, whether it was in a bowl of fish soup in a spit and sawdust place, or a complex dish served against Farrow & Ball painted tongue and groove. You generally can sense this care – or the lack of it – as soon as you walk into an eatery. I have experienced it, over the years, at the Plaza Athenee, the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons and La Tante Claire. Rather perversely, though, I have felt it most strongly in places that aren’t smart. Max Renzland and his twin brother used to run a much-loved bistro in the London suburbs called Le Petit Max. During the day the premises operated as a greasy spoon called Bonzo’s. At night it was transformed, with checked cloths and wine bottles full of flowers, into a dream of France. The brothers sourced the best ingredients – Collioure anchovies, cheeses from Androuet – and cooked, with a passion that was almost crazy, perfect French bistro classics.
Two of my favourite places to eat in the world are restaurants that food critics joke aren’t really ‘proper’ restaurants at all. Alice Water’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley offers a no choice menu. It started off rather like a supper club. The chefs weren’t trained and the food they offered was great, but they were careful to cook what they could manage (many weren’t trained chefs). Again, a devotion to ingredients, to individual dishes, to giving the diner the best they can possibly offer is at the core. The Bistro du Paradou, a gem of a place near Les Baux in Provence, doesn’t offer a choice either. You get what’s on the menu, and the excellent food is cooked by a man who isn’t a chef, but a former bank manager.
So I look for sincerity, honesty, excellence and care and I take a total delight, not just in the ritual but in the fact that restaurants devote themselves to offering the best experience, and the best food they can. I don’t care whether the restaurant is on the hipster hit-list, or glitzy, or has the name of a celeb chef above the door. I want it to be the real deal, and I will pretty much know whether it is or not by the time I’ve ordered.
It is one of my tenets that to live a happy life you have to get pleasure from the small things. Good chefs and restaurateurs, whether they know it or not, are keepers of this philosophy. Of course in the grand scheme of things – when we look at what requires attention on a global scale – restaurants are not ‘important’. But at the same time a desire to be and to offer the best you possibly can to others is very important indeed.