On the white-clothed table in front of me sits the famously plump, roly-poly Michelin Man ashtray. How 1980s can you get? These days, however, Monsieur Bibendum sits astride a pat of butter and a butter knife instead of matchboxes and smouldering cigars. Ha! We may not be able to smoke these days, but we can still kill ourselves with cholesterol. That's progress for you.
Otherwise, the dining experience at Bibendum is pretty much as it was when Sir Terence Conran, Lord Paul Hamlyn and plain old Mr Simon Hopkinson first opened the restaurant in the former Michelin-tyre headquarters in 1987, attracting the sort of starry, media-friendly, monied clientele that today would be known as celebrities.
The high-ceilinged dining-room, with its dominant central waiters' station, stained-glass images of Monsieur Bibendum and sleekly framed turn-of-the-century caricatures, is as it has always been. The original wraparound chairs have been replaced with identical models, their cloth covers still changing colour every season, and tables are so well spaced you couldn't eavesdrop if you tried.
Even the classic French menu first installed by Hopkinson has been carried on by current chef/director Matthew Harris, who has been cooking here since day one. It may not be set in aspic, but it is certainly gently napped with beurre blanc. Favourites from the 1980s, such as escargots de Bourgogne, soupe de poisson, roast chicken with tarragon for two, fillet steak au poivre, and tarte fine aux pommes are still very much the orders of the day.
The crowd has changed – then, the restaurant pulled Princess Margaret, Francis Bacon, Princess Diana and Dirk Bogarde. Now it's OAPs such as David Frost and Michael Winner, well-dressed tourists and small groups celebrating birthdays in very business-like manner; one glass of champagne, one small bag from a Bond Street jeweller; nothing too ostentatious.
I sigh, and snuggle into my comfy 1980s chair and order my comfy 1980s food. It's all wonderfully Elizabeth Davidian; the half-dozen snails (£11.75) as bubbly, buttery, parsleyed and garlicky as a heart specialist would want. A ring-moulded crab, crème fraîche and cucumber salad (£15) is another blast from the past – oh, how many of these did I eat, and make, in the 1980s – although Harris has succeeded in lightening it so that it tastes more of crab than cream.
A judiciously crisped fillet of cod with salsify (£19.50) is '80s-ised with a quenelle of wild-mushroom duxelles (not sure I've said the word quenelle since 1989) and a tangy, tarragony beurre blanc. My wife, a child of the olive- oil generation, picked her salsify batons – ooh, batons! – from the sea of beurre blanc just as she did when we first dined in France. This is a beautifully curated museum, she says. Or perhaps an ark.
My dish of braised calf's tongue with mustard and caper sauce (£18.50) is unbalanced, with too little soft, melting tongue and too much rich, thick sauce. On the side, shredded Savoy cabbage is divinely buttery, and a 2005 (I couldn't afford anything from the 1980s) St Aubin Les Frionnes (£44.50) from the extravagant wine list is honest, soft and smoky. Pud just has to be a soufflé glace, smooth and rich, served with a retro fan of pear (£8.50).
For those who grew up with it, Bibendum is a warm bath of continuity, consistency, comfort, character and class, with attentive professional service under 20-year Bibendum veteran Karim Miftah. For those who didn't, it's a lesson in how a restaurant can grow into something much more than tables, chairs and a revolving door of celebrity chefs. It reminds me more of what was good about the 1980s, rather than what wasn't – with the possible exception of the bill, which is as uncomfortable now as it was then.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Bibendum, Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7581 5817. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £150 for two, including wine and service
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Opened in 1963, by the 1980s it was a seasoned veteran. These days, even Rick Stein sings its praisesReuse content