food: Friday night steak out

Of course you listen a lot when you eat out alone. To everything. 'Can I have my rump vaguely sun-tanned please?' What on earth is wrong with very rare? Illustration by Paul Brown
A few weeks ago, I finally finished packing almost everything I own into boxes, ready for the builders and decorators to move in, and for me to move out. It's a soul-destroying job, particularly if you are a manic hoarder of all sorts of bits and pieces - from treasured possessions to banal acquisitions. There were agonising decisions such as: "Do I really like, or did I ever want that vase?" And the sorry sound of memorable and treasured empty wine bottles - an '85 magnum of Beaune Clos des Mouches and a surprisingly good bottle of '54 Latour, among others - smashing as they disappeared into the black hole of the local bottle bank. You just have to be ruthless and hold the memory, not the vision. For Heaven's sake, it's only a few bottles with names and dates... (sob).

The outcome was that, by 9pm, I was starving. I had been going solid since 7am and needed some sort of sustenance. With extraordinary foresight, one of the few items not yet packed away was my cocktail shaker, into which I poured a none too judiciously measured slug of Tanquery and a miniature of Martini vermouth from a plane trip. This is a very useful ploy by the way: ask for two miniatures and surreptitiously stash them away, as they are ideal for Martini cocktails when you get home (a whole bottle goes off quicker than you think and you know you only need a thread). Oh, and a lemon of course and some ice. It all reminded me of James Caan in Misery.

By the way, do you know why home-made Martinis sometimes taste a bit odd? I put it down to the quality of the ice. If ice has been hanging around for some time in the freezer compartment - particularly the sort that is inside the fridge itself - and various foodstuffs have emitted their odours, the ice will pick them all up. So remember, very new and clean ice is essential for this most pure of drinks.

Having enjoyed this imperative restorative and a hot bath, I pondered as to where I might indulge in a reasonably quick but enjoyable period of refuelling. It was a Friday night, so, I thought, restaurants will be busy. Should I book? You see I was determined to go somewhere locally and, after the large drink, most certainly walk. So it was time to narrow down the possibilities. I am quite lucky in my manor: there is a Japanese inside a large local hotel (excellent for solitary meals but not what I fancied); a very traditional neighbourhood place, whose owners have been there for nearly 30 years, and which I love; a noisy and fashionable Italian that serves enormous food on enormous plates; and then there is the place around the corner. It is a small restaurant which serves very good food and is owned by a slightly frightening woman. Well, disconcerting perhaps. I hadn't been there for years so I decided just to walk round and see.

I put on my one set of clothes left unpacked and sauntered confidently into the night. She was full, but nicely so and wished, for my sake, she could have been more accommodating. Though it was suggested that I go off to the China Garden, I didn't want Chinese. Then, with a little "whoops", I remembered the small and simple-looking steak restaurant only several minutes' walk away at the top of the road. I had read quite a favourable review a while back and I had been meaning to go for some time. So, with hunger and trepidation (Friday night and steaks being a popular outing), I hurried along. And was in luck.

I was ushered to the one small table left, sandwiched between a few others but, no matter, I was glad to be inserted. On offer is a short menu comprising almost any manner of steaks, at eminently affordable prices, and a couple of salads. Big chunky chips are included. There is a small selection of home-made puddings: sticky toffee, crumble, that sort of thing. And no first courses - a very sensible notion before embarking on a steak dinner. Does one really need the almost obligatory corn on the cob or whitebait?

Now this is not meant to be a restaurant review; that's not my job after all. But I am always interested to see how restaurants on my doorstep are doing, and what my neighbours are like and I am always fascinated by the reception that greets a lone diner. Here, it was charming (from one of two young girls), though the proprietor - for I think it was he, cooking the excellent steaks in what is not much more than a kitchenette - looked a shade unapproachable. A threesome, looking to him for help on arrival, were told "You're over there". Which was next to me. I wish I had been sure of where they were sitting because I can be charm itself, and could have gestured, smilingly.

Of course you listen a lot when on your own. To everything. "Can I have my rump vaguely sun-tanned please?" (what on earth is wrong with very rare?) or "Could we have some olives?" I gave them mine, with more consideration for myself if the truth be known: I wanted another cigarette before I left and thought this act of huge generosity might pacify the unknown threat of "Do you mind if... ahem..."

The brusque delivery of "You're over there" didn't seem to upset these Brook Greeners or Shepherd's Bushers. Perhaps that is because locals who like a place are prepared to put up with a bit of surliness and warm to an enterprise just because it's only a short walk home. On the other hand, maybe these three weren't locals at all. In that case they might never bother to come back