Eating Out: Celebration on a whim

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The Independent Culture
LE CAPRICE

Arlington House, Arlington Street, London SW1A 1RT. Tel: 071-629 2239.

Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Average cost of meal, including house wine, pounds 35 per head. All credit cards accepted.

, I should warn you, is not that easy to get into. It was my oldest stepson's birthday. I asked his wife where she thought he'd like to go, and she said definitely the Caprice; they'd never been there, it was very glamorous and it would be a real treat. Overcome by that dangerous sense of social confidence that comes on in advanced middle age, I said I was sure that would be fine, I would book a table for four on Monday night of the following week.

I rang the restaurant and got a warm voice on the other end saying: 'Caprice a-restoront'. I asked for the table. 'I'm a-sorry, sir, cumpletely fool. Maybe I can a-feet you hin later, say nine a-thirty, ten o'clock?' I reminded him this was Thursday, and I was talking about next Monday. 'I'm a-sorry, sir, no tables available earlier than a-dat.' I said that was rather a pity, as I was hoping to review the restaurant in the Independent on Sunday. 'Eight o'clock, sir, a-how many people?' Such is the power of the press.

I got there slightly before eight and sat for a bit, taking in the hugely sophisticated atmosphere: the murmur of conversation, the piano tinkling, the light glinting on polished black wood, an elegant figure in a white jacket sitting up at the bar having dinner alone and swapping world-weary banter with the barman. It was like being on an ocean liner in a Thirties film, as long as you didn't look too closely at the white walls and notice the David Bailey photographs from the Sixties.

At which point, enter my nearest and dearest in dangerously affectionate mood, accompanied by tall debonair stepson and tall attractive Scandinavian stepdaughter-in-law. We all smile, kiss each other, and get down to studying the menu, while I reflect on the fact that taking out two extra people is going to cost me as much as this kind of junket normally costs the Independent on Sunday.

Talking of kissing, I think restaurant kissing may be going too far. The head waiter of a Chinese restaurant not far from where I work in Kensington seems automatically to kiss any woman who comes in, but very awkwardly and with apparent reluctance. I can only think he got it from watching television programmes about theatrical restaurants in New York or Hollywood. Be that as it may, and unkissed by any of the waiters at the Caprice, we ordered between us a creamed wild mushroom soup, a crispy duck and watercress salad, seared scallops and trompettes with sorrel, and sauteed wild mushrooms with country bread.

My mushroom soup was absolutely delicious and cost only pounds 4.50. The others were all a lot more expensive, particularly my wife's scallops at pounds 8.75, though I suppose I should have been grateful they didn't ask to start with the sauteed foie gras with Sauternes jus, which was pounds 11. I had already pushed the boat out with four glasses of kir royale to celebrate Thomas's birthday, and I think we drank two bottles of quite expensive wine, though I regretted not having the house vin de pays at pounds 8.50 a bottle.

Throughout this, of course, glamorous diners were arriving, being stripped of their outer clothing at the rather cramped little rail by the door and making their discreet entrances. There is no grand staircase to come down, people just arrive in what is, after all, quite a small restaurant. But the whole point of the Caprice, apart from the thrill of looking at the David Bailey pictures of the Sixties and realising that we old surviving swingers from those days are still to some extent in one piece, is that it's choc-full of the extremely famous feeding their extremely famous faces.

It was at this point that my stepdaughter- in-law, who is, like myself, in the media, spotted our first celebrities. They were, she indicated, sitting at the next table, and I swung round to goggle. It was my first-ever theatrical agent, Ros Chatto, having dinner with the great theatre designer Carl Toms. Then I realised the other two people at the table were Ros's son Daniel and his fiancee Sarah Armstrong-Jones.

Having been crazy about Sarah Armstrong-Jones for years, I became over-excited and incoherent, almost forgetting the expense. This was a good thing, as someone - I think it was probably my wife, a great preacher against extravagance - had plumped for the char-grilled halibut with Jersey Royals and minted hollandaise at pounds 15.50. I made do with the confit of Barbary duck, served with garlic mash, lentils and red wine sauce at pounds 10.50, and the young ones very decently settled for the salmon fishcakes. The duck was wonderful, and they all liked theirs too.

Just then I spotted Jenny Agutter, whom I once acted with in Love's Labour's Lost on the television, and so I hopped over for a perhaps more than necessarily affectionate greeting, only to be introduced to her very nice husband.

Meanwhile, back at the food we discovered all the puddings are pounds 4.75, so we had a tarte Tatin of pears, a baked Alaska (flambeed at the table for festive effect) and two baked rice puddings with Armagnac prunes.

I would have said they were all, like the rest of the food at the Caprice, as good or better than anywhere I've eaten in London, even if the waiter at that moment had not come over and brought us four glasses of pudding wine with the proprietors' compliments, 'not as bribe butta meahely to celebrate youra step- son's birth-a-day'. I hope we drank it in that spirit. He is a fine lad, and we're all very proud of him.

Dinner for two, with tip, worked out at a little more than pounds 80.

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