A recent lunch and then dinner at Bibendum restaurant in London's South Kensington, which opened in August 1987 thanks to the diverse talents of designer and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran, the late Paul Hamlyn, publisher and philanthropist, and Simon Hopkinson, its original chef and now cookbook writer and tv presenter, was inspired by a friend's innocuous question.
All he had wanted to know was for quite how many years I had been writing this column. The realisation that 2014 marks my 25th anniversary at the FT
made me feel my age, but also reminded me that I submitted my very first article after my first dinner at Bibendum. It was typed; posted to the then editor of the Weekend section; and sent very much in hope rather than expectation.
A return visit seemed particularly appropriate because last summer the Bibendum Oyster Bar underwent a significant structural transformation.
The building still looks as magnificent as ever even as I stood outside gazing up at it in the heavy evening rain. The blue letters spell out the words Michelin, for whom it was initially built as an HQ and tyre depot in 1911, and the combination of large windows and colourful tiles contribute to its glamour.
The big change is obvious immediately. While the cooks behind the left-hand counter still prepare the platters of oysters and shellfish that have been the menu's mainstay, to the right on the forecourt there is now a fully fledged kitchen that has significantly extended the menu. This has added rather a dramatic note - as the heat from its two fryers rose to meet the cold night air it sent steam across the kitchen that enveloped the cooks in mist.
What is on offer in the Oyster Bar now ranges from wafer-thin Parma ham (a reference to Hopkinson's obsession with Monty Python) on sourdough toast to a daily changing roster of well-executed roasts and half a dozen more substantial dishes: boudin noir with steamed potatoes; lamb curry with basmati rice; and, from Hopkinson's childhood, a plate of stewed onions with Lancashire cheese and a poached egg.
The considerable pleasure this food gives is enhanced by the distinct charms of the three different eating areas and the opportunity to watch the world go by. In the forecourt there is the chance to see everyone, despite the cold; the lobby provides views of those en route to the offices above or the Conran shop next door; while the small horseshoe bar to the left, the cosiest of the three, furnishes a good view of those en route to the restaurant above.
It was here that we met friends, just back from Los Angeles, who have eaten at Bibendum regularly since it opened and were excited to be back. As we climbed the stairs, adorned with Michelin posters of a bygone era, they recalled this restaurant's other distinction 20 years ago: that, alongside the River Café in Hammersmith, Bibendum was the first London restaurant where dinner for two cost over £100!
The bill came for four came to £444 with two exceptional bottles of wine, some very good food and highly attentive service in a dining room that, while again allowing the ready opportunity to look around, also offers space between the tables and all the incidentals - carpets, tablecloths and curtains - that contribute to excellent acoustics.
The menu, handwritten by a staff member and executed by Matthew Harris, only Bibendum's third head chef after Matthew's elder brother, Henry, now at nearby Racine, and Hopkinson, continues to tread an enticing path between comfort food, French classics and those dishes that I always look to order in a restaurant because they are beyond my amateur capabilities. If I were a regular, I am sure I would order the foie gras terrine with Armagnac jelly; persuade a friend to share the roast chicken with tarragon; or take on the fillet steak 'au poivre', the dish that many years ago initially convinced Conran to hire Hopkinson for Bibendum.
We ventured more widely. A starter of grilled red mullet with blood orange and fennel, a special of the day, and a dessert of an iced clementine parfait showed the kitchen's awareness of seasonality while a Pithiviers of truffled wild mushrooms and Comté cheese showed its dexterity. Four slices from a loin of venison were expertly cooked, as was a whole partridge and thick sliced boiled calves tongue with salsa verde. The two lapses were an over-lavishly dressed endive salad ordered as a first course and undercooked Brussel sprouts. Bibendum's caramel ice cream remains the very finest ever enjoyed.
The wine list, compiled by wine writer Matthew Jukes, is confusingly laid out in that it is divided by region rather than by colour, but it did not deter us from rooting out two gems: a 2002 Tyrell's Semillon from Australia (£69 and only 10% alcohol!) and a very rare bottle of Kusuda Pinot Noir 2011 (£145) made by a former Japanese diplomat now a winemaker in New Zealand.
As I was saying good night to Lily, the cashier who has been at Bibendum for 23 years, the women of the party, looking back across the dining room, agreed how warm and inviting it still appears. Editors and health permitting, we plan to celebrate here in another 25 years.
Bibendum Restaurant and Oyster Bar
81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RD
tel +44 (0)20-7581 5817. Open 7 days.
The photo above comes from the Bibendum website.