Writing for Observer Food Monthly has brought me lots of excitement down the years, most recently an offer of more salty liquorice than might be strictly advisable. But the adventure of which I still think most often, and most fondly, also delivered a good friend to me – “a dear pal”, as he would put it – in the form of the great cook Jeremy Lee, with whom I first bonded halfway up a mountain in Scotland in 2004. I won’t bore you with the details now (they involve an elusive stag, an enveloping mist, and a certain physical feebleness on both our parts). All I can say is that I had then never been so glad to share a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer with another human being. Eat your heart out, John Buchan.
Jeremy is the chef at Quo Vadis in Soho, London, and earlier this month the 10th anniversary of his arrival at that magnificent establishment was marked with a swanky dinner for friends and colleagues. It was an overwhelmingly lovely night. House cocktails were served, as pink and ineffably chic as ever, and then we feasted on some of the things, simple but marvellously good, I will always associate with his restaurant: smoked eel on toast, roast pork with mashed potato, meringues as big as the hill on which I first got to know him. All night, Jeremy moved from room to room in his trademark French-style worker’s jacket: a smiling, kindly presence. For a few impossible hours, I enjoyed the illusion that all was right with the world.
Afterwards, lying tipsily in bed, I thought about Quo Vadis: how much I love it; how much I would miss it if, God forbid, it ever disappeared. (I only came to understand fully what a taste-free fool Liz Truss truly must be when I read that she had refused to host a US trade representative there, choosing instead to take him to some vastly more expensive private members’ club for dinner.)
I thought, too, of some other favourite long-standing London restaurants: Moro, in Clerkenwell, which is 25; St John, down the road, which must be approaching 30. My mind spinning on (too much – or too little – wine), I tried to picture the Old Vicarage, in Ridgeway in Derbyshire, where I celebrated getting a place at university with my dad, and Ashoka, which claims to be Sheffield’s oldest Indian restaurant.
There will always be fashionable, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it restaurants, and people will always rush to eat in them. But it’s the ones that last that take up residence in our hearts. All the things that can happen in one place, good and bad. The drama! At Quo Vadis, I was sitting next to Sam Clark, the co-owner of Moro, and as I told him – poor man, me droning on – so much has happened to me there, not just birthdays and the occasional career triumph. It was at Moro that a man who claimed to be in love with me left the table to go and ring his girlfriend, an experience that, at the time, I found more humiliating than I can possibly say. (It gets worse: when he returned, approximately 8 minutes and 47 seconds later, he had the temerity to be annoyed by my sudden loss of appetite, as if it was me who was spoiling the fun.) What I find is that the bad stuff doesn’t change how fondly you feel about somewhere. A beloved restaurant is a bit like home in that sense: safe, steady, restorative. If it solemnises the highs, it absorbs the lows, too. You go back, you order your favourite dish – cardamom and rosewater ice-cream, in the case of Moro – and the sadness is soon rubbed out.
It may be hard, sometimes, no longer to be the cool place; to watch your best customers growing older. But in the end, what you have is far, far more valuable: relationships that may be traced back many years; deep affection, even love, on the part of your regulars. Eventually, you pass into the kitchen equivalent of elder statesman territory. You have authority, and all the beautiful calm that comes with it – and of course people have children, and godchildren, and nieces and nephews. A new generation arrives, (re)discoveries are made. The circle is complete, and begins to turn again. All this was in my mind as I tried to sleep – this, and the sense that I had surely eaten one too many spoonfuls of meringue.