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The restaurant world changes at lightning speed. That’s a good thing when we discover hot new places set to become regular hangouts, but it’s tinged with sadness when we stop to remember treasured restaurants that have been consigned to the culinary history books. We invited 10 of the country’s top chefs and restaurateurs to wax nostalgic about the restaurants they miss most.
In the early to mid-90s I was working as a maitre d’ at Joe Allen and on my days off would often meet my best friend (and now business partner) Richard Beatty for lunch at Alastair Little. The room was stark and uncompromising, the lighting was more operating theatre than restaurant, and the service was just a whisker short of arrogant, but Alastair’s cooking was brilliant. When his head chef Juliet Peston returned in the mid to late 90s, the dishes got even better; I’d say that Peston’s cooking was more ‘Alastair Little’ than he was. The most memorable dishes were always the simplest; I would happily eat Alastair’s ratatouille every day of the week.
Modern equivalent: Quo Vadis. Jeremy Lee is one of the few chefs who can fill Alastair’s shoes.
I went there only once and, to be honest, I thought it was a bit behind. It was 1982 or 1983 and I’d just arrived from a Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy. I didn’t get it. It took me a few years to understand how revolutionary it had been. Owners and founders Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla literally introduced the concept of the trattoria to London [they sold up in the 70s but the restaurant kept going until the early 90s]; previously, Italians had opened ‘caffs’ or worked with French chefs. Mario and Franco were proud to be Italian. Everybody who was anybody ate there – Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra. My wife ate there all the time when she was a girl and remembers how they would close one room on Saturdays to show Walt Disney films. I love that, it’s so Italian!
Modern equivalent: Locanda Locatelli. Mario [who died in 2011] ate regularly at Locanda Locatelli and taught me so much.
The Sugar Club was just amazing. Peter Gordon [the London-based, New Zealand-born chef] was a fearless traveller in terms of ingredients and how he put them together, and he set the stage for a lot of people, including me. There was an experimental element to his food (pictured, right), and everything was always so flavoursome. He did a beautiful piece of beef with beetroot pesto, kangaroo fillet with Thai dressing and peanuts, and scallops with sweet chilli sauce and crème fraîche. The Asian flavours felt so new.
I was about 19 when I went to The Carved Angel with my sister and my mum, who is a huge fan of Joyce Molyneux [chef at The Carved Angel]. I don’t remember everything I ate but I remember finding the basil sorbet so exciting: that you could make a sorbet with a herb! When Joyce was cooking in the 70s and 80s, it was all about nouvelle cuisine, but her food wasn’t like that; it was good tasty stuff that was lovely to eat.
Modern equivalent: Mitch Tonks’ The Seahorse in Dartmouth, or The Sportsman in Seasalter. Both are about fabulous, delicious food, without being fussy. They rely on seasonal ingredients and spot-on cooking, and that’s it.
Marcel Boulestin was the first television chef and one of the first French chefs after Escoffier to really educate British people about food. I’m a bit of a Boulestin freak, though I never got to eat at his restaurant, a great institution in its day – I didn’t have the money as a young chef. In 1984, I was working around the corner at Inigo Jones [a Covent Garden restaurant that closed in the 80s] so I’d loiter outside Boulestin on my break, reading the menu board and drooling. There would be bécasse au fumet [woodcock] and the famous omelette Boulestin that we now serve in cep season at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe.
Modern equivalent: Le Gavroche shares Boulestin’s attention to detail and classic cooking and service. It is owner-driven, personal yet professional, and it has the same maxim: the restaurant of kings and the king of restaurants.
Twenty years later, I can remember every meal I had at Harveys. The oysters, cucumber and caviar, the big old lump of veal sweetbread with girolles… Marco Pierre White was an extraordinary cook. Although he used to use other people’s dishes, he’d credit them on the menu and occasionally he’d improve on them. There weren’t that many restaurants then: you’d only get one new one every six months. Harveys was a gastronomic temple; the food wasn’t fancy-fancy, just very well executed. And Marco was a character; I’ve got a few stories I won’t be sharing.
Modern equivalent: I can safely say that nothing has touched it since.
I think so fondly of The French House when Fergus Henderson was chef [1992-1994]. I remember eating guinea fowl with slow-cooked courgettes and saffron, and rhubarb ice cream. It’s hard to imagine now, that kind of food feeling so new, but it was that fledgling time when food was starting to change. Seasonality had drifted out and you had a choice of either fine dining or Pizza Express: there was nothing in the middle. I always thought of Fergus as a little poet. His cooking was so charming and English and the menus were so simple and strong: no jus, no reductions. He outgrew the space, as Florence Knight did with Polpetto.
There was a waiting list to work in the kitchen at Pierre Koffmann’s La Tante Claire. A ‘who’s who’ of chefs, including me, went through the kitchen – Tom Aikens, Eric Chavot, Tom Kitchin. It was known for some great dishes – the pistachio soufflé, the pig’s trotter, the roasted foie gras with potato basket. It was very expensive; it was for the elite, there’s no two ways about it. You have to remember that in the 70s, people were still just getting their heads around Berni Inns.
Modern equivalent: For modern food in a classic way, The Square.
Bjorn van der Horst opened Eastside Inn just before we opened Viajante and when I ate there the first time, I thought ‘wow, we’ve got to up our game’. You had two worlds in there – fine dining and bistro – and I’d sit at the counter with a glass of wine and dabble in both. One minute you’d have a rustic cassoulet; the next he’d throw in a conceptual fine-dining dish. It’s a shame it closed so soon. It takes time for a restaurant to wash away the smell of paint and build its identity. It’s great that Bjorn’s going to be back in town [at Rosewood London on High Holborn].
Marco Pierre White’s second restaurant after Harveys was so glamorous – perhaps not by today’s standards, but in its day. A big movie star – Michael Caine – was a partner and Marco Pierre White was very rock ’n’ roll at the time. It was the place to be seen: models, pop stars, film stars and all the Chelsea set. I liked it so much I got a job there. There were some great dishes – the spiced pig’s cheek with cinnamon, star anise and ginger, and the saffron risotto was pretty amazing.
Modern equivalent: Pollen Street Social is ahead of the current dining trends and showcases accessible dining from great chefs of the moment. It will be a breeding ground for future stars.
This feature was published in the autumn 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.