When Samuel Chamberlain published British Bouquet, his "Epicurean Tour of Britain", in 1963, the Bostonian devoted a lengthy chapter to the gastronomic delights of London (and five pages to Guildford) but failed to include a passing mention of any restaurant in what was then Lancashire. An editorial strategy that was perverse 50 years ago would, today, be regarded as little short of insane.
Even the man from Massachusetts, were he revising his 500-page work today, would be obliged to travel to Liverpool, if only to visit 60 Hope Street, probably the best known of the city's more ambitious restaurants.
I was delayed by heavy rush-hour traffic, with the result that my companion had to wait alone for over an hour, time he chose to spend in the majestic Philharmonic pub. On our way from the Philharmonic, which is about 200 yards from 60 Hope Street, we stopped off, at his insistence, for "a quick drink" at the Hope Street Hotel, and arrived at the restaurant just after 8.30pm.
It's a few years since either of us has been to 60 Hope Street, following a regrettable incident involving a fellow diner who my companion said had been "looking at him". That visit aside, I have only fond memories of this restaurant with its inventive, reasonably priced menu and approachable staff.
But this evening neither of us is formally dressed and the man on the front desk greets us with the kind of look that Transylvanian innkeepers in 1930s films give to unknown travellers asking for a ride up to the castle. It seemed for a moment that he was going to refuse to consult his bookings diary.
Once we're seated, things start to look up. There's not a lot to distract you at 60 Hope Street: the proprietors, perhaps fearing no artwork would be sophisticated enough for their clientele, have left the walls bare. I order a carafe of tap water, and try a quarter-glass of my companion's first bottle of Catarratto, a crisp, aromatic, Sicilian white. It's a small thing, I know, but, given the thought they've given to their famous wine list, I can't help wondering how hard it would have been to allow the water to stand long enough for it to lose its swimming-pool bouquet. My companion, meanwhile, is irritated that his bottle has been placed beyond his reach in an ice bucket, an implement whose purpose he has never fully grasped.
My starter of smoked salmon and shrimp is exactly what you expect from 60 Hope Street: fresh, unpretentious and elegantly presented. The shrimp are described as coming from Southport – a reassuringly local name that, unlike nearby Morecambe, evokes no visions of panicking, trafficked Chinamen inexorably overwhelmed by a swiftly moving tide. My companion has the scallops: the traditional plate of three, stripped of orange corals, as is usual with the smarter establishments in Britain's large cities.
If there's a criticism you could make of 60 Hope Street, it's that the restaurant sends out mixed messages. The modest size of my exquisite grilled halibut is in keeping with the sparse décor which, as my companion observes, is the badge of "nouvelle cuisine – which," he explains, "is French for 'Twix on way home'." His fish and chips, meanwhile, are substantial, no-nonsense home cooking.
It can be important, as that tale about Peter Mandelson mistaking mushy peas for guacamole illustrates, to identify just what kind of an establishment you're eating in. I discover this to my cost when I order the Deep Fried Jam Sandwich. I'd assumed, bearing in mind the tastefully unobtrusive dimensions of my halibut, that the sandwich would be some ironic parody on Scots cuisine and the size of one, possibly two, first-class stamps. Actually, it's not one, but two, formidably sized fried jam sandwiches, served with Carnation milk.
My companion, who likes to keep abreast of the latest news of the Reich on the History Channel, orders Tokaji dessert wine, on the grounds that, and I quote, "This is what the Führer drank in the bunker, just before he blew his brains out." Any item of food or drink can establish associations with dark and indelible memories, but few achieve this quite so powerfully as the Deep Fried Jam Sandwich, whose legacy was at its peak when I lay awake the following morning listening to the 5am bulletin on the BBC World Service. That said, this signature dessert is – as 60 Hope Street always has been – nothing more than it claims to be: unique and unforgettable.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
60 Hope Street, 60 Hope Street, Liverpool, tel: 0151 707 6060 Lunch and dinner, Mon-Fri and Sun; lunch only, Sat. About £70 for two, including wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.comReuse content