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Food and Drink

Food and Drink: Back through the hole in the wall - Emily Green returns to an old favourite in Bath and finds its high standards faithfully revived

Before the war, there was a cafe in Bath called The Cellar, whose entrance was through an old coal store. By the Fifties, however, American servicemen had nicknamed it 'The Hole in the Wall' - and that is how the pride of British restaurants gained its name.

George Perry-Smith opened The-Hole-in-the- Wall proper in George Street in 1951, and ran it until 1972. It not only came to embody the principles extolled by Elizabeth David, but actually anticipated them. Mr Perry-Smith, now retired to Helford, Cornwall, recalls: 'We were delighted to find her books, and thought, gosh, this is exactly what we like doing.'

This was synchronicity Fifties-style, touched by post-war euphoria and informed by a European, subtly Modernist sense of chic. The restaurant's premises may have been Georgian, but the look was bright and new: floors covered in sisal matting, the walls white, the window frames set off in black, the banquettes covered in zingy stripes. Local craftsmen were commissioned to make stoneware pottery and paint decorative glass screens.

In short, Mr Perry-Smith had taste, which extended to the kitchen. The cooks he trained have become so successful in their own right that he now says shyly that he finds it 'mildly embarrassing' to see their names listed after his.

At the risk of embarrassing him further, I will cite five: Stephen and Judy Markwick, proprietors of Markwicks in Bristol; Tim and Sue Cumming of the Vintners Rooms in Edinburgh; and, most famously, Joyce Molyneux of the Carved Angel in Dartmouth, Devon.

The most important notion imparted by Mr Perry-Smith is that good style hinges on good sense. His restaurants worked well because he put much thought into them. For example, he always insisted that chefs do turns waiting table, and that waiters work the kitchen. 'It seemed quite obvious,' he says today, 'that cooks would cook better if they saw their food being served, and that waiters would wait better if they understood the food they were serving.'

Feats of memory were required. Mr Perry- Smith thought service would be more personal if the waiters memorised the orders rather than writing them down. He was, by all accounts, a difficult task-master.

When he left Bath in 1972 to open the Riverside Restaurant in Cornwall, The-Hole-in-the- Wall was taken over by one of his chefs, and subsequently changed ownership several times. By the late Eighties, it had become a trattoria called Pino's Hole in the Wall. Then, last autumn, it came up for sale, and in February was bought by a 36-year-old hotelier, Chris Chown, proprietor of Plas Bodegroes in Pwllheli, Gwynedd.

Mr Chown seems to enjoy a challenge. He set up his relatively pricey place in remote Wales eight years ago, and succeeded against the odds. He flashes the Michelin star he earned there in 1991 at dissenting critics and renegade modern chefs, then turns the dissenters' arguments on the Michelin types.

It would seem, however, that the pressure of taking up Mr Perry-Smith's legendary seat has briefly shut him up. For the past three months, the concentration with which he has refurbished the restaurant in the manner of the original has verged on the devotional.

Bits of original pottery have been salvaged and placed in sitting-rooms of the new restaurant. Sisal has been laid. The banquettes are freshly upholstered - in what look like stripes but are actually faint checks. The walls are white, the window-trim black. But there are changes: the banquet table, where the old restaurant used to display cold meats and salads has gone, the kitchen has been moved - and one enters from the upper pavement, not the coal- store 'hole in the wall'.

The result could not be more respectful, or more handsome. And the staff, led by manager Nigel Griffith, could not be more welcoming, deft and presentable.

How they will cope with numbers, however, I cannot say. It was opening week, and we were among only the handful who knew that. Waiters will not be put into the kitchen, says Mr Chown, but kitchen staff will be rotated so that they develop a full complement of skills.

The new chef is Adrian Walton, formerly of a Home Counties restaurant called Partners 23. According to Mr Chown, 'some of the dishes are his, some are mine and some are George Perry- Smith's'. The best thing we sampled in a very good meal was Mr Perry-Smith's: salmon and mushroom cutlets with tartare sauce. Ideal, as any good cook will tell you, for using up bits of fish, in this case from another Perry-Smith dish of salmon in puff pastry.

There is a business menu, which should fill the place up sharpish. Its two-course option costs pounds 9.50, three-course pounds 11. For this you may get leek and potato soup and pot-roast lamb, delivered, according to the menu, in a 'guaranteed service time' of 50 minutes.

Pricing in the carte is similarly democratic. Starters cost pounds 4.50, main courses pounds 11, desserts and cheeses pounds 4. This is less altruism than good husbandry. Those who want (expensive) prime cuts will find them in the form of, say, char- grilled steak. Yet often skill transforms modest ingredients into dishes such as jambon persille - here refreshingly referred to as 'parsleyed ham'. This consists of little more than parsley, ham chunks and aspic. That it is delicious is a bonus. Serving it with beetroot chutney was new on me, but those beets, keeping company with salad leaves, were good.

Fish soup was good, with the sweetish tinge that lobster shell imparts, and just the right fire of chilli. Braised lamb shanks were well-prepared, sturdy, seasonal. I was less mad about skate in black butter, though the fish tasted remarkably fresh and the capers were big and meaty.

We drank a superb 1988 Barbera d'Alba made by one of the heroes of Piedmontese wine-makers, Angelo Gaja. His wines are rare in Britain because, it is said, he is better at making wines than friends, and his bottles are expensive.

I would put up with quite a lot for wines such as this, and would occasionally even shell out the pounds 26 that this one costs. Yet the list is geared most sensibly away from Piedmont, its 120 offerings concentrating on burgundies, clarets, rhones and various New World wines priced on average from pounds 9 to pounds 15.

The-Hole-in-the-Wall, 16 George Street, Bath, Avon BA1 2EH (0225 425242). Vegetarian meals, ideally by arrangement. Children welcome, special portions on request. A la carte, with wine, coffee, service, etc, pounds 30. Open Monday-Friday lunch and dinner, Sat dinner. Visa, Access.

(Photograph omitted)