Tripping the bite fantastic

THE RITZ TERRACE; The Ritz Hotel, Piccadilly, London W1V 0BR. Tel: 0171 493 8181. Open daily 12.30-2.30pm and 6-11.15pm. Three-course set lunch pounds 28, four-course set dinner pounds 43. Average a la carte price pounds 55 per person. Credit cards a ccepted
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The Independent Culture
"The Men in London have quite a quaint custom of not giving a girl many presents." So concluded Lorelei Lee - grumpily - in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, while staying at the London Ritz, before decamping to Paris to try out the "veecounts". The ghosts of fictional heroines reluctant to curl a lip at a diamond clip, however geriatric the donor, still hover so around the gilded mirrors, palms, marble and pale pink gorgeousness of the Ritz that it makes a girl walking through the bar feel shifty when a waiter says: "Can I help you?"

"I'm looking for someone tall and dark," I whispered, giving quite the wrong impression even though I hadn't even added "and rich". But far from throwing me out, the staff were so helpful and obliging I wouldn't have been in the least surprised if they had offered me a choice of four, all holding out Tiffany's boxes.

The London Ritz is 90 years old this year and, to celebrate, is being renovated with such discretion that there is no evidence of it whatsoever. As I waited in the bar for my gentleman friend (with a newspaper provided unrequested, presumably to keep a girl's eyes averted) all seemed so elegant, divine and romantic it was hard to imagine what would possess a person to meet a gentleman friend anywhere else for the sake of saving a pound or five on a glass of champagne.

The particular lure of the Ritz's world-famous Louis XVIth dining room is that one can dine on the Terrace or in the sunken Italian Garden. It being this particular summer, we had made a pact to arrive sporting a range of warm and sturdy undergarments. Even these did not promise a match for the biting wind outside, but on entering the extraordinary Belle Epoque room we were relieved. It is one of the most glamorous, seductive, breathtaking rooms imaginable, with a ceiling of blue sky and clouds, a circle of gilt fanciness suspended beneath and everywhere pink marble, chandeliers, flowers and candlelight.

It being a Friday night, a dinner dance was in progress. Such affairs in hotels can often be naff, with men with strange hair crooning "Hun forgeddubble ... hasss .... uh .... woyouarrruh" and nobody else there. But here the room was full and buzzing. A jazz band with clarinet and sax was playing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", transporting one back to the New York of the 50s. There was a delicious air of being fussed over at the highest level, with many very busy waiters and trolleys. One parked at our table, showing off a large side of roast beef. As my date remarked, it was rather like being in a Chinese dim sum market. For reasons not unconnected with the fact that starters alone ranged from pounds 10 to pounds 61, we opted for the set four-course dinner at pounds 49. It was a shame there was not a lighter cheaper one since there is only so much food one can eat, especially when unexpected extra items keep on turning up. We were presented with a coffee cup of pea soup, which made us worry that next they would bring us a plate of tea.

The Ritz wine list is a stranger to the notion of value. There is nothing under pounds 20 apart from the house wine at pounds 17.50. We plumped for a perfectly serviceable St Veran for pounds 25. Running hotels is expensive, but it does seem a shame that somewhere so beautiful as this should be priced out of the reach of most romantic couples, unless their expenses are being paid by a newspaper or one of them owns one. Perhaps as part of their family values campaign, the government could subsidise the Ritz, rewarding any who stay married for five years with a main course with vegetable.

The food initially promised well. My chilled tomato consomme with prawns and very tiny asparagus was gorgeous. Translucent and flavoured with lemon grass it had the complicated, delicate flavour of the finest Thai soup. My date, however, felt his gravadlax was bland and needed a sauce. Next I tucked into warm aubergine gateau with sweet and sour mushrooms: fine, but too rich for what was effectively a second starter. My date felt similarly about lobster and langoustine soup with morels and spaghetti. "Too many morels," he complained throatily. "Can we book a room?"

At that we thought we'd better dance, and discovered that once the band had you up, the numbers ran into each other, so it was impossible to stop. "The nearest I've come to perpetual motion," murmured my companion.

We dragged ourselves back for the main course: an excellent fillet of beef in bread and herb pastry, though the vegetables - dauphinois potatoes, sugar snap peas - were deemed too rich. My red mullet was really not worth breaking off a dance for. The fancy arrangement in a circle with celeriac and lobster did not make up for the mullet's lack of lightness and moisture and we couldn't wait to return to perpetual motion, eventually having to be summoned by the waiter for raspberry souffle.

Having once had a traumatic experience with a raspberry souffle myself - far from sinking, it seemed to grow and multiply like a space monster so that everywhere I looked in the flat for days there was more and more raspberry souffle lurking - I was sympathetic about the fact that this one had sunk in the middle and had to be disguised with a blob of ice- cream, particularly as it was my fault for losing all track of time. The texture and taste was superb: and they had managed to keep it all in the dish, without letting it get out into other parts of the dining room. As if five courses (counting the pea soup) were not enough, we were presented with a miniature coffee cup of chocolate mousse and a plate of petits fours.

Dinner, dancing, water and wine came to pounds 127, including coffee and service. Though the food was not our favourite kind, and we would have preferred more consistent expert execution and less fancy fussiness, the gorgeous environment and glittering atmosphere were out of this world. For a romantic evening out with a gentleman friend, a girl could do no finer - unless at the Ritz in Paris .... ed? !