Food: What the world ekes out when London eats in

Living, temporarily, in the souk just off the Edgware Road in north London, and tramping the city's streets determinedly during that extraordinary and unique hiatus in national life that now marks the Christmas holiday, I am convinced that foreigners must think we are mad.

Quite apart from economic reasons - can we afford not to work for so long, or are too few of us working anyway? - there is something bizarre about shutting down our services on the very days when a large number of foreigners, for reasons that remain alien to me, are visiting us. How many foreigners, in these days of total shutdown, know there are some places, such as the Edgware Road or Notting Hill, which continue to function, and where you can actually eat on the prohibited days?

Make no mistake about it. The country's capital is substantially deserted by its denizens, and I have run into every nationality under the sun in the past fortnight. If these holidays have been anything to go by, the European Community has migrated wholesale to our shores. Energetic Portuguese housewives were being shod, Germans were wandering around Soho looking for sex and finding beer, Eastern Europeans (of the new class) were stocking up on consumer durables, presumably for eventual resale, and Italians, who formed the largest single group, were poring over our incomprehensible bus maps trying to get from Madame Tussaud's to Buckingham Palace.

Where do they all eat? The Italians are here (as they were all over Europe last summer) because Italian hotels, especially in resort areas, have long been outrageously overpriced (you can spend the cost of a night at the Connaught on a night at a concrete dive anywhere along the Italian coast) and restaurants are following their greedy example. But on the matter of holiday eating I feel truly sorry for them.

It is not that London lacks restaurants, or even Italian restaurants. In fact, the dominant trend of the past three years has been the opening of restaurants serving good, modern Italian food - Riva, Osteria Antica Bologna, River Cafe and Cibo, to name but a few. But most of these lie outside the London of the tourist. In the West End, Knightsbridge and Soho, Italian restaurants of the old generic style still predominate. Indeed, they so designate themselves: Ristorante Italiano, and that's that. And what is served inside is pretty generic, too. Many of the owners left their native land before the last war. Italians as a race are not adventurous eaters (you will not find many ethnic restaurants in most Italian cities, and they are distrustful of our native cuisine) so this must cause them quite a problem.

A lot of the difficulty is that our eateries, especially in high-rent districts, are singularly uninviting. On a rainy night you peer through a foggy window at a long room and see 20 tables squeezed together and a few sullen- looking waiters; the menu card is illegible due to fog, drizzle or scanty illumination; the cramped diners hardly look as though they are having a good time.

If I ran a national airline, I would hand out a duplicated sheet mentioning a dozen or so decent places that would solve the matter. But then, at this time of year, the tourist must also face the problem of which restaurant is open and for how long. As far as I could see, in central London a good half of the available restaurants were closed and, instead of waiters, one saw long- haired young men teetering on ladders trying desperately to restore light and cleanliness after a year's-worth of fug.

My own situation was no different. My many children and their families want a quiet chat over dinner, as well as the collective family bashes. And there are friends to visit, too. In my case, one event had to be fitted in on New Year's Day - when, in most countries, nearly everyone eats out. But the British are condemned to eat in. The only solution is those hotels (far from all) whose dining rooms remain open, and here I admit to striking it rich.

Taking my wife, my son, his lady and his Portuguese poet godfather to dinner required a peculiar balance of qualities. But our meal at the Four Seasons restaurant in the Inn on the Park turned out to be a triumph on all counts. Each of us ate something different (yes, you protesters, we started with fresh foie gras) and no dish, from my veal shanks to their lamb and beef, from salads to charlottes, was less than excellent, nor served with anything less than perfect discretion and with plenty of space and time for conversation. Our bottle of Sassicaia was so good that it could actually be sipped rather than swilled, which is more the custom in my family. Pricey, yes; good value, certainly.

Similarly, the Old Delhi restaurant on Kendall Street remains a haven of untypical Indian and Iranian food served as it should be: with refinement and a real appreciation for the customer's preferences - this perhaps because the owner, and his son, on duty that night, are rather ambassadorial in their manner. It happens also to have an excellent wine list, and the idea that one should not drink wine with spicy food is an absurdity. To cap it all, it is open 363 days a year]

But please, for the visitor's sake, would the Tourist Board distribute, widely, a list of where to eat when London is shut?

Four Seasons, Inn on the Park, Hamilton Place, London W1 (071-499 0888); pounds 50- pounds 60 per person with wine.

Old Delhi, 48 Kendall Street, London W2 (071-724 9580); pounds 20- pounds 25 per person with wine.

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