I once ate three meals in an evening – and how real is that? It was in Portugal, on the Algarve, and I was travelling alone, aged 20. At a beachfront café, I fell in with some German women who were a little older than me. One of them, who was horse-faced in an attractive, three-times-around-the-paddock-cantering-vigorously sort of way, took a shine to me – and took a shine in particular to the way that I demolished my steak and chips. “Mein Gott!” (or some other stereotypical German exclamation) she cried, “You are having the most impressive appetite – this is very sexy in a man!”
So, thinking I was on a promise, I ordered a second portion, then a third, but to no avail: the horse-faced German galloped off into the Portuguese night with another rider, leaving me to toss and groan and belch the night away. I thought about this the other evening when I found myself eating at the same restaurant for the third time in a week. Since I’d ordered the same thing on the previous two occasions, I threw risk to the wind and ordered it again. I say “it”, but actually my repetitiveness was more profound.
I ordered three courses on three separate evenings and all of them were the same. It gets better (or conceivably worse). The first time, I was with someone called Laurie; the second, I was with someone else called Laurie. When I realised that I was eating the same thing, in the same restaurant, accompanied by someone with the same name, for the second consecutive evening, I couldn’t forbear from informing the maverick sociologist and presenter of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4 (for it was Laurie Taylor) – but he sort of blanked this information and shortly afterwards he made his excuses and left, without having so much as touched his starter.
I didn’t mind: I had my mackerel pâté with marinated beetroot to look forward to, followed by the bream with heritage tomato salad and olive oil mash (whatever that might be – personally I’ve always found mashing olive oil surpassing difficult).
There were these culinary treats and also my location, as I was eating in one of the restaurants that is realest to me. It’s not a great restaurant – arguably not even a passable one – but that doesn’t bother me, because the important thing about Joe Allen in Covent Garden is that it is pretty much unchanged since it first opened in the late 1970s: it has the same exposed brick walls, the same woodblock floor, the same long mahogany bar, backed by a full-length mirror. In its heyday, Joe Allen was the hot spot for theatreland and you often saw name actors, directors and playwrights eating there, while many of the staff were larval versions of these professionals, hustling for tips while they waited for their big break.
The framed playbills and posters on the walls remain the same – but in the past few years, since the business was sold to Stephen Gee of Carluccio’s infamy, hairline cracks have begun to appear in the ageing establishment’s slap. The clientele are now more likely to be bridge-and-tunnellers in for a show, rather than the showmen and show-women, while the staff no longer have any pretensions to anything other than a decent wage.
Meanwhile, the menu has mutated. I shan’t bother to itemise the changes exhaustively but the most significant alteration is to its signature bacon cheeseburger. Once positively globular – so stuffed was it with beef, pork, cheese and dill pickle – it now crouches on the plate, looking distinctly flat and wooden. As for the chips, these were once thick-cut and deep-fried in beef dripping but now they arrive in one of those dumb little metal buckets that are all the rage – moreover, they’re indistinguishable from the ones at McDonald’s.
Am I going to move my business elsewhere? Clearly not, as the three visits in the past week would seem to confirm. Why? There are several reasons for this. First, location: Joe Allen is perfectly placed for my far-flung children to rendezvous. Second, ambience: the restaurant has the air of an Edward Hopper painting, complete with solitary Martini drinkers.
Third, history: the Family Self has been eating here since it opened. Indeed, this was the restaurant where we used to meet when my mother was still alive. And this last reason is perhaps the clincher, explaining not only why I keep going but why I feel compelled so often.
Everyone knows that food is the mortar that cements the family unit and when your family unit is as, um, non-unitary as mine, the mortar needs to be that much more consistent. Eating at Joe Allen connects me vitally with my late mother’s digestive tract, for she was a New Yorker by birth and the restaurant could have been created for her, as it has a branch in London and another on West 46th Street. Yes, this is an old-style New York bistro – and my mother was an old-style American wiseacre, with a nice line in nasty put-downs.
On that basis alone, I’m happy to go on picking up the tab. As to why my menu selections have been quite so unadventurous recently . . . Well, while the pace of change is accelerating in almost all areas of our national life, I find comfort in stasis to the point of constipation.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe