Since I have the gall to pontificate fortnightly on the places where people actually eat, it seems only meet that I should occasionally 'fess up to my habitual gnawing spots. Not, as regular readers of this column appreciate, that I'm one of those foodinistas who never chew fast'n'low. I even enjoy an occasional trip to McDonald's late in the evening, when the sebaceous whiff of the departed teens has merged with the odours of the chip fat, the meat and the polystyrene.
I like to sit there in the artificial twilight, picking my teeth with the fries, wolfing a simple cheeseburger and washing it all down with glugs of a coffee-style drink; comforted, certainly, by the rock-bottom prices but also savouring that particularly poignant solitude that comes from eating solo in a public place. Yes, that's my buzz - I admit it; far from looking upon mealtimes as social affairs, I gain the greatest of pleasure from masticating alone. Indeed, when I first saw Buñuel's Le fantôme de la liberté, I found the scene in which the guests at a bourgeois house sit around a table on commodes discussing defecation politely while shitting, then retire to small locked cubicles in order to eat, anything but surreal.
I suppose my ideally real meal would be consumed in one of those small family-run bistros you can still find in central Paris, with a few tables covered with check cloths, a prix fixe and some specials chalked on a board - the sort of gaff you imagine Inspector Maigret dining in when he's fed up with sending for beer and sandwiches from the Brasserie Dauphine. I always liked the atmosphere of Simenon's novels because of their concentration on the sensuality of the quotidian: a solitary appreciation of the texture of food, the play of tobacco smoke and the taste of wine.
Still, needs must, and since I live in dirty old London my equivalent is another anachronism, the India Club Restaurant on the Strand at Aldwych. I used to eat here as a penurious recent graduate in the 1980s. Back then I was amazed by the timeless quality of the place: the chequerboard of grotty lino leading up a flight of stairs, then another flight and into a dining room redolent of the 1950s: plain bentwood chairs, plainer melamine-topped tables, grot-brown floor, yellowy-distempered walls, and on those walls affectingly naive portraits of Indian notables. Gandhi, in dhoti and granny specs, his hands held thus far apart as if to indicate the size of the great celibate's . . . what? and captioned "On His Historic March to Dandi". By the door there's an even murkier daub of a gentleman with a patriarchal beard, who, the restaurant's current patron, Yagdar Marker, told me, is none other than Dadabhai Naoroji, Britain's first Asian MP and one of the founders of India's Congress Party.
Same old rasam
As I say, when I first went to the Indian Club it seemed beautifully old-fashioned - and not like an Indian restaurant in 1950s Britain, for there were hardly any of those, but like one in 1950s India. At that time, the place was frequented by Fleet Street hacks who referred to the food as "Gandhi's revenge". This is unfair, but no one is going to claim the Indian Club is a gourmet outfit. It offers up today exactly what it always has: serviceable Madras cuisine, heavy on the ghee.
Just as I like to eat alone, I hold to Wittgenstein's dictum that it doesn't matter what you eat, so long as it's always the same thing. At the Indian Club I have the rasam, a tamarind, tomato and chilli pepper soup; the mixed bhajis - some are mild peppers, others are fiendish chillis; the tandoori chicken, some dal and some chapatis. All of this is washed down with masala tea.
I was eating this meal in the early 1980s and when, after a 20-year hiatus, I started going to the Indian Club again, I resumed eating it. In the meantime nothing here had changed! The world outside had horribly mutated but in this sepia burrow it was still India in the 1950s. Mr Marker dolefully informed me that when he took over in 1997 he was obliged to refurbish the hotel upstairs by Health and Safety, but he remained as dedicated to preserving the vintage ambience of the restaurant as I was to imbibing it.
So, if you're in town and desire a break from the frenetic present, stop by. Some might say the Indian Club is a delusory place, but for me the real maya lies outside. I'm sure Dadabhai Naoroji would agree. l
Next week: Madness of Crowds