Aching to get feet under a(nother) table

Willoughby at Vinoteca, getting ready to reopen April 2021

Nick's life story … in this plea for a change from our dining table.

My late mother never let us forget. She would always say to me, my sister and my brother ‘there are an awful lot of people worse off than you’. And she was, and continues to be, absolutely right.

But just for one moment, let me have a moan, one that comes at the end of a wonderful 24 hours. Thursday was my birthday, celebrated with lots of cards, well-wishing emails, a Zoom with my oldest friends, and a brief get-together outside with the rest of our family in the freezing cold that was London at 5 pm under a grey sky. This was preceded by an enjoyable lunch with HRH and an even more enjoyable dinner: a rib of beef, new season’s broad beans, a bottle of Ch Figeac 2008 (after the 2004 was deemed tainted by TCA) and the leftovers of a birthday cake made by our younger daughter with a glass or two of Ch Suduiraut 2010.

All extremely nice and enjoyable – except for one missing ingredient. For the second year in a row there was no prospect of stepping inside a restaurant to celebrate.

Hence my moan. I, and a few others I would imagine, form part of a small minority who have now had to spend two birthdays at home. First, there was the initial lockdown from early March 2020; now there is the tail-end of England’s third national lockdown, which ends tantalisingly in two days’ time on Monday 12 April, albeit for outside tables only.

Around King’s Cross there have been the first signs of restaurants reopening. Passing Vinoteca, which has a large outdoor space, I spotted Willoughby Andrews (the son of someone who once worked for me and was so small then that he was able to hide in the dumb waiter – he is now over 6 ft tall) briefing all the staff prior to their reopening. I sneaked the picture of him above.

Then there were the numerous gatherings of staff at Parillan, the outdoor restaurant area that belongs to Sam and James Hart’s group, which includes Barrafina and Quo Vadis. Finally, inside Caravan – into which I had popped for a takeaway coffee and the scene of so many wine events – they seem to be repairing the chairs for when they can fully reopen indoors in May.

So promising. So exciting. So much potential fun to be had. But for all those, like me, who have had to celebrate a second birthday without a trip to a restaurant, still so tantalisingly far away.

Restaurants have played an enormous role in my life. Growing up in what was a restaurant desert, aka Manchester in the 1960s, I was lucky in that my parents invariably managed to find a few hidden gems. There was the Gaylord, for what we all considered extremely hot and spicy Indian food. There were a couple of steakhouses, extremely popular with my brother and myself. Then there was George’s.

George, named after its be-whiskered proprietor, was a revelation to us all. Located in a former home close to our own, it had a car park at the rear from which you entered the restaurant. I remember the wall being covered with large carpets and tapestries and the whole atmosphere of the place being transformative. It was really my introduction to what any exciting restaurant could be: a place that took you, the customer, on a journey without you having to leave your home town.

There were two types of restaurant in Cambridge when I studied there in the early 1970s. The overwhelming majority were ‘cheap and cheerful’ and catered for the students and those who lived there. The most popular was a Greek restaurant on the corner of King Street, where an extremely filling moussaka and a dessert would cost no more than 10 shillings (50p!). This was in contrast to one or two more sophisticated French restaurants in the countryside round about. One, I remember, was still run by a proud Frenchman, a member of de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, who got on very well with my father and who served classic French food and wine with an aloofness also typical of the era. A photo of my family, fortified by a meal here and taken after my brother’s graduation in the late 1970s, is still in my office.

I then joined a privately owned firm of commodity traders, whose directors enjoyed such good food and wine that we used to joke that the AGM could have been spent in L’Ecu de France restaurant on Jermyn Street. Imagine my surprise when, after only a few weeks in harness there, I was given the following piece of advice. ‘Once you can navigate your way round a menu and a wine list, Nick, you can easily persuade most of those you will come to deal with that your intentions are completely honourable.’ This advice came from Bob Bottomley, a delightful director of the company who, several years after we were married, laid on for us a magnificent tasting of several bottles of Petrus straight from his Sussex cellar.

Restaurants were to play a significant role in our marriage. In late 1980 I had taken on the agency for a California wine and signed the lease to take over L’Escargot restaurant in Soho when I received a fax from Bud Burke, the agent for the winery. He was coming to London and could I arrange a dinner with a wine writer please? Happily, I had already spotted Jancis, having delivered some samples to a tasting she was organising for the Zinfandel Club at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. She said yes to dinner at Boulestin, Covent Garden, and the rest has been the most enjoyable history.

2 June 1981 was my first day as a restaurateur, almost 40 years ago. Since then I have lived the life of a restaurateur, and enjoyed writing about them from all over the world; I have thoroughly enjoyed the role of hospitality consultant to a string of arts organisations, and I have even written two books about the business.

But my greatest pride has to come from the fact that, having spent so long in restaurants with our family, our experiences in them have so obviously rubbed off on our son. And, after far too long a wait, at 6 pm this Monday we will take our seats outside one of his restaurants – eagerly, no matter how cold the weather.