I always remember my parents saying to me when I reluctantly brought my end of term school report home, "If you don't pull your socks up you'll end up as a shop assistant," or, worse still, "waiting on tables".
Fortunately, I have since done both and I still do the former from time to time, just to keep my hand in. I think it's the instant gratification which is so appealing; a customer walks into your shop you sell him a suit and - if you are a good salesman - a shirt and tie (what we like to call in the trade "add-on sales"). He leaves satisfied with a smart carrier bag full of goodies, you pop a few hundred quid in the till and everybody is happy. It's not dissimilar in the restaurant business where "add-on sales" take the form of "another bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape for the table?", asked in that tone of voice which makes it difficult to refuse. After all, one doesn't wish to appear mean in front of friends.
In the mid-1970s I began waiting on tables to supplement my income while I tried my hand at property developing with a colleague of mine, Ashley Lloyd-Jennings. If the truth be known, waiting tables was my only income. Lloyd-Jennings and I had hatched a plan to purchase a couple of run-down terraced houses in Fulham for a combined price of barely £30,000. We had blagged a mortgage each and submitted to our bank a business plan that had been concocted on the back of a beer mat in the snug of the then Peterborough Arms on the New Kings Road; we had virtually set up office there. To our surprise - and relief - the bank supported our endeavour and, so as far as we were concerned, we were on our way to our first million. Well not quite, as cash flow became a problem; it flowed only into the pockets of the builders. Hence my need to get a job pronto.
An actor friend of mine was working in the restaurant Maggie Jones's just off Kensington High Street in west London - he was, as they say, "resting" between jobs (although, believe me, working in a restaurant offers absolutely no rest). There was a vacancy for a waiter and he recommended me for the job. I was taken on immediately.
In those days the very British Maggie Jones's was owned by an Anglophile Australian, Neil Ware. Back in the early 1960s its previous owners had called it Nans Pantry - which was presumably something to do with nursery food - but when Ware took over he noticed that Princess Margaret and her then fiancée, * Anthony Armstrong-Jones (who later became Lord Snowdon), had become regulars, popping in from her Kensington Palace pad, so he renamed it "Maggie Jones's" in their honour. To this day, the odd royal can be glimpsed dining at one of the discreet tables either downstairs away from prying eyes or at tables one and two on the ground floor which are also popular with couples on a romantic night out. As is so often the case, it takes an outsider to sell Britishness to the British, and even ratchet it up a few notches, and this was something Ware achieved with aplomb.
Staff worked on a shift system where some days you would work two shifts in succession - ie, lunch and dinner - which everyone hated. As with most jobs there was a hierarchy and being the new boy they thoughtfully pencilled me in on my first day to work a double session. Thankfully, lunchtimes tended to be quieter than the evenings, so I was able to be taken through my tasks at a manageable pace. I was shown how to lay tables which, as a left-hander, took me quite a while to master. Having a beautifully laid table is always a promising start to a meal, though invariably all your hard work is swept aside as customers wade in and rearrange everything.
It was explained to me that it was important for customers to be served drinks and crudités with fresh bread almost as soon as they had sat down as it puts them in good humour and makes them less likely to worry if the kitchen is running late with their main order. I had to remember to point out the specials on offer and to be aware what the soup of the day was. The manager told me not to stretch across customers to retrieve items from the table unless it was absolutely necessary and added tactfully that all staff were recommended to use a deodorant. It was also drummed into me that I should never leave a table without checking first to see if anything needed to be taken away or replaced.
These were Ware's ground rules which had to be adhered to at all times or there would be hell to play. His restaurant's reputation had been built on his attention to detail and, while to the outsider it appeared to be a very relaxed place, it was run with military precision. Under his watchful eye I prepared starters (rather ham-fistedly at first), polished glasses, scrubbed tables, swept floors and made terrible coffee. I smiled until my jaw ached and, on the whole, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Evenings were frantically busy and, with the restaurant being laid out over three floors, the staff would spend the whole night running up and down stairs. The upside was that when you arrived for the night shift, the waiters and kitchen staff all sat down to dinner at the large oval table and settle on the ground floor; it was all very civilised and congenial. The waiters were a mixed crew of students and out-of-work actors and models; others were travellers just passing through London. No one viewed it as a job for life, and if they had they would probably never have enjoyed it.
So when an American friend of mine was in town a few days ago and I was casting around for somewhere to take him, I suddenly thought it would be fun to return to Maggie Jones's.
It was reassuring to see that everything appeared to be the same. The Maggie Jones's sign was still in the yellow and brown cowboy-saloon-style graphics that were fashionable in the 1960s. Inside it remained virtually unchanged too, still enjoying the atmosphere of a country inn of the mid-19th century. The scrubbed pine tables were in use, as was the oak settle to seat 10. The cluttered Welsh dresser was, as always, unarranged with a hotchpotch of willow-pattern platters, assorted examples of Cornish ware and a motley collection of enamel kitchen utensils. Faded hunting prints adorned the walls and candles were flickering in magnum bottles on each table. It all looked inviting, comfortable, cosy and happily familiar.
Sadly Twinkle, who was an enormous white and tortoiseshell cat, no longer sits in the window and the grey Great Dane that used to wander around the establishment resting its head beguilingly on the corner of the tables has also long gone.
We were shown to the only vacant table by a waiter wearing a black T-shirt with black jeans; I seem to remember in my day we wore navy blue chemise Lacoste and Levi's. Who knows what he will end up doing one day.
In no time at all crudités were served and bread proffered and the wine order taken, just how it always used to be. We were left to read the menu: I could have quoted it to my guest verbatim so little had it altered.
We enjoyed our supper enormously. It was hearty country food at its comforting best. We skipped coffee anxious not to keep the waiters at their stations - I didn't want to be one of those customers who don't know when it's time to leave and let the waiters also finally go home.
In London, where restaurants often launch in a puff of publicity and close again just a few months later, it's great that a few establishments just go on and on finding new fans without having to resort to any wild stunts or dramatic relaunches. Today Maggie Jones's is owned by Peter Frankel who seems set to ensure it remains as it always been - a national treasure.
Maggie Jones's, 6 Old Court Place, Kensington Church Street, London W8, tel: 020 7937 6462Reuse content