The aperitif is back, the aperitif is in. At Simon Rogan's joint in the Midland Hotel, Manchester, a guy in a bomber jacket breaks off a conversation with his date, "I'll have Just a Splash – that cocktail with Aperol and Prosecco," he says to the barman.
At Grain Store in London's King's Cross you'd have to be a fool, or a teetotaler, not to order the mustard martini before you start on Bruno Loubet's food, and the people at the table next to me are neither – they ordered two. At The Ethicurean restaurant in Bristol, Flloyd's in East London, and scores of other places up and down the country, waiters are gently guiding diners to the pre-dinner drinks part of the menu – or else straight to the bar. After all, as Kingsley Amis used to say, the most depressing question in the English language undoubtedly is "shall we just go straight through to dinner?"
That the practice ever even neared extinction is to our collective shame. You can see how it happened, though. There were reasons. First, the word itself. If I could remove, possibly with a spoon, one word from the English language, it would be "aperitif". It might have a noble history, being derived from the Latin verb aperire, "to open". But nowadays it sounds like the type of word deserving of a frilly collar and knee breeches. Would you ever ask your pals if they "cared for an aperitif?" Probably not, unless you'd escaped from a Noël Coward play.
The second problem is the amuse-bouche, those little edible "gifts" from the chef. A friendly gesture, no doubt, but they have the unfortunate effect of eating into the drinking time. Sometimes it is necessary to check a gift horse's gnashers.
Neither problem is insuperable though – you just need a strategy. The second is easiest. Simply tip the waiter the nod and delay the amuse-bouches, or, better still, avoid places which serve them altogether. And as to the first, let's just all agree, as many sensible restaurateurs seem to have done, to pension off the word "aperitif".
Now we have sorted out the name, another question comes over the horizon. What exactly should our pre-dinner drink be? What will hone the appetite without dulling the mind? Whisky is out straight away, as is gin and tonic. Both will trample the palate. A glass of champagne is good but that doesn't come cheap. A negroni is excellent, too, but may make you slur. There is only one thing that works, sure-fire, every time: the martini.
At dinner on Tuesday night, I was late, tired and cold. I ordered a martini and I was soon warm, happy and attentive. That ice-cold gin, with that little stain of vermouth floating across its surface, it has a magic effect. As Ogden Nash put it: "There is something about a Martini;/ A tingle remarkably pleasant;/ A yellow, a mellow Martini." Be warned, though, order more than two and you are in trouble. I once drank four in a restaurant called Skylon in London and forgot to have dinner.
Now, some may think pre-dinner cocktails – martinis especially – are haughty. Something for other people; people who live in Eaton Square, for instance. But they are wrong, wrong, wrong. A home-made martini requires nothing more than gin, vermouth and an olive – it is the democrat's drink.
And besides, the whole practice of drinking before eating is a courtesy to your fellow diners, a means of blowing on the waning cinders of the self and priming yourself for the conversational tennis to come. Do it with cider if you must. Just don't be discourteous – let's not go straight through.