The advice, firm as it is plentiful, flows out of the pages in great torrents. "Never buy a haddock which weighs less than 1lb or more than 2lb," we are advised. "There is nothing to be said about eggs except that obviously they should be as fresh as possible," comes next. And then: "Sprouting broccoli are particularly good... rules for meat are that the texture should be firm and moderately elastic and should by no means leave an imprint when touched."
Then we reach a peak of sorts with the injunction, "you can of course cook soup out of a tin but these, in my opinion, should be used in a case of emergency only... you can always do much better with a proper stock".
The tone of Giovanni Quaglino's Complete Hostess may be rather hard for readers to swallow – it feels, at times, like being addressed by a company sergeant major with a gripe – but the instructions themselves are as sound as a well-cooked soufflé. We are advised to buy local, eat seasonally and take a bit of time in choosing what we buy – all the stuff that the Saturday supplement chefs tell us.
It is a very modern book. Or at least, it could pass as such, if the exclamation-flecked foreword wasn't written by Barbara Cartland, whose opening salvo is: "In the Twenties we danced!"
In fact, the book was written in 1935. But the interest is not purely historical, because today Quaglino's, the St James's restaurant founded by Giovanni, reopens after a £3m refurbishment.
It seems an almost unknowable feat these days to serve up lunch, dinner and suppers for 85 years with continued success. Sure, you expect it of hotel dining rooms, the Savoy Grills of this world, but a stand-alone restaurant? And it becomes doubly surprising when you consider the place itself. Not only was Quaglino's successful, it excelled. It drew playboys, adventurers and film stars like filings to a magnet.
In the Fifties, they kept a table permanently ready for the Royal Family, so frequent were the visits by Princess Margaret and the royal dukes. Barbara Cartland claimed to find a pearl in an oyster in the dining room. When the Queen visited in 1953, it was the first restaurant a reigning monarch had ever eaten in. Later, it was filled with celebrities drawn for the seafood and fun: from Elizabeth Taylor to Michael Hutchence, via Helena Christensen. They came, they drank, they ate, and they quite possibly staggered out.
How to explain the success of the place? Reading Dame Barbara's preface we find a clue: "It was not only the food that mattered to [Quaglino] but the fact it gave happiness". It wasn't all about the food, though it was good and sensible, as Giovanni would have wanted it – it was about the whole package. It was one of the few restaurants that played with the theatrics of restaurant-going, made it seem frivolous and fun and even at times glamorous. Diners went there to eat and drink merrily in an agreeable atmosphere – and that, sometimes, is all we want from a restaurant. To me, it is like an old friend, often overlooked but not forgotten, and I am happy to raise an oyster to its return.Reuse content