Quality illuminates my dark struggle

The Providores, 109 Marylebone High Street, London W1

020 7935 6175;


Open daily: contact restaurant for details

The late Robert Morley, actor, champagne socialist and my partner in
an espresso bar in the 1950s, seldom had a cup of tea without turning
to the server, waitress, whoever and saying, “Best cup of tea I ever
had, dear”. I was early for a 4.30pm medical appointment, went into a
bar/restaurant on Marylebone High Street and asked for a cappuccino; I
needed to kill 13 minutes. It arrived four minutes later. I thought, as
I examined the high-quality porcelain cup, the luminous creaminess of
the topping and the richness of the aroma that rose from it… and
especially as I slurped the coffee through the impeccably proportioned
froth, that if I had consumed a cup of better cappuccino, the occasion
escaped me. 

There was a menu on my table and I discovered it was also a
restaurant serving the kind of food I like: slow-roasted meat, lamb
shanks, salt-crusted sea bass. I asked whether it was necessary to book
for dinner. They said they did not take bookings, not down here in the
Tapa Room. A week or so later, I returned. It was 6.40pm and the place
was buzzing. Some 50 people sat at small tables along the walls, by the
windows and at a long, raised communal table in the centre of the room
and shouted at each other. A man came up. I told him I would like to
eat, and was guided to a very small, rather draughty table.

After a while, a nicely dressed woman came up to me and smiled. I
stood up – probably a friend of one of my children, I supposed – and
shook her hand. She said: “Can I take your order?” That never used to
happen in Lyons Corner House, where the waitresses were clad in black
skirts and blouses, white aprons and small cloth coronets in their
hair. I explained that I was awaiting a guest, and asked for mineral
water. Ah well.

I looked at the menu… but it was too dark for
me topick out more than the odd word, “olives”, and the occasional
price. There were tapas, which cost under £5. Every other table was
occupied by young, pleasant-looking people with mobile telephones. None
appeared to have torches. I suppose my eyesight is to blame.

my elderly guest arrived and could not pick out the words on the menu
either, I asked the man who had seated me if we might eat upstairs – if
it was lighter and quieter.

He examined his bookings, did his
arithmetic and said there was a table, “but you will have to vacate it
by 8.15”. So we went upstairs, which took me some time, to find a
40-seater room with good-class napery and cutlery and glassware and a
menu that bore no relationship to the one I had seen on my previous
visit, nor that which began with tapas and which I could not read in
the oyster-light downstairs.

A nice waiter from New Zealand asked if he might help. Lamb shank? No – just what you see on this menu. He was called Alastair; it said so on my computerised bill.

the desserts, costing around £8, there was toffeed roast grape pudding
with white peaches and pomegranate sorbet with whipped cream.

had a foie gras and a fungus dish served on a four-inch circle of
puff-ball and accompanied by a salsa; then quite beautifully roasted
venison and brilliantly tender black beef. Around us, people were
enjoying what they ate. The wine of the month was an Australian Merlot,
£7.50 a glass. We had one of those and a vodka, and the bill came to
£97, including a discretionary service charge. On the way out I saw the
ground floor was heaving and the noise had increased, every decibel
made by the sort of nice young people my children know.

The place
is called The Providores… which at first I thought was to do with
bullfights, like matadors, toreadors, picadors, but on reflection it is
probably foreign for victuallers, as in people who provide. Next time
there is a bomb alert, I shall go there and eat a lamb shank.

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