It's the end of a beautiful friendship

Club Gascon, 57 West Smithfield, London EC1A 9DS

020 7796 0600

Open Monday to Friday, 12pm-2pm, and Monday to Saturday 7pm-10.30pm

The
best restaurant is that which knows you best is a statement made by a
wise man. I had an acquaintance – a young city slicker who met a
stunning girl, invited her to dinner and decided to take her to a
trendy Chelsea establishment he had read about. He telephoned, asked
for the headwaiter, told him his name was Samuel Osprey (it wasn’t, but
I don’t want to embarrass Anthony Swan) and that he wanted to bring
this supercool woman to dinner. “Please could you pretend to recognise
me? I want her to be impressed. I am 6ft 3in and will be wearing an
electric blue tie. We shall be there at 8.15.”

He picked up his
‘friend’, took her to the restaurant, and the headwaiter called out:
“Mr Osprey, great to see you, look, everyone, Mr Osprey is here again”,
took him to a crap table – “Your table, will it be the usual?” – and
brought him a bottle of Dom Perignon.

As a cook, I go out to
lunch and dinner mainly to avoid the washing up: either to a local
ethnic – we have a good Swedish restaurant called Garbo which is
excellent value to boot in the next street, a Chinese and an Indian
which are absolutely all right (apart from being Chinese and Indian) in
walking distance – or for highdays, holidays or distinguished guests,
Sheekey’s in St Martin’s Court, off Charing Cross Road, and Club Gascon
in Smithfield Market, where they know me best.

I go there about
10 times a year; they give me the same table and in neither place do
staff disturb my enjoyment of their good food by asking me if
everything is all right.

I was recently invited to lunch by an
editor whose office is near St Paul’s Cathedral. I suggested Club
Gascon and that he book the table in my name. This beautiful restaurant
seats about 50, has a wine list withdelicious local (to Gascon) wines
priced £20-£25, has a great flower arranger and specialises in foie
gras. For a starter, before their handsome if miniscule amuses gueules,
I always order pommes frites – the best chips I have eaten, fried, the
chef has told me, in duck and goose fat.

The bread is freshly
baked, the butter unsalted Normandy in a silver-paper wrap and all the
food is served on unexpected though wholly appropriate slabs of stone,
marble or wood. The staff are young, mostly French, and welcome their
regulars with smiles a few centigrades warmer than are accorded
strangers. Service is on the slow side, but you would not go to Club
Gascon if you wanted to eat and run. Michael Winner complained about
having to wait and also accused them of calling themselves a club when
you did not have to be a member to go there.

I thought of Lord Bryon, who had a clubfoot.

Now
here is what happened when the editor and I went last week: the
receptionist, the manager and all but one of the waiters – he welcomed
me back, shook me by the hand – have gone and while the food was as
excellent as ever, it just wasn’t the same. It was no longer the place
where they knew me best.

Anonymous staff brought me chips, on
demand – they used to come of their own accord because I was me – the
foie gras, the partridge, the fillets of brill and the desserts (we
ordered the three-course set lunch at £35) were faultless, if a bit
tardy and in small quantities, which I would not have noticed under the
old regime.

Sheekey’s, which I have known for more than 50 years,
used to have sawdust on the floor, the fish was steamed or fried and
there was a choice of lobster sauce or parsley sauce. When they went
through their transformations, they closed down… and reopened.

Time I went there again. My table is no. 24, the date and year of my birth, between 5 and 16 on the roulette wheel.

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