The big question is, when did it all change? When did the restaurant get the upper hand? When did we diners became pathetic supplicants begging for scraps? Ooh, a table at 5.30pm? Yes please. You want it back at 7pm? No problem. Charged a fortune for some deluded chef's laboratory experiment, we thank them for the privilege. Tossed out the door without a goodbye, we make plans to go again. It's a classic case of the abused becoming dependent on the abuser.
I can remember when it wasn't like this; when a restaurant was there to make us feel comfortable and well-fed; something set up for our pleasure rather than their convenience. The difference is simply good manners. Great restaurateurs were always well-mannered enough to be grateful for, and appreciative of, our custom.
I get a glimmer of those golden days at Quo Vadis in Soho, newly restored and reopened by Sam and Eddie Hart, the brothers behind Spanish treasures Fino and Barrafina. These two are shaping up to be real restaurateurs, as opposed to absentee entrepreneurs. Tonight, it's the taller Sam on the floor, clearing tables, bringing ice, taking orders. I like a worried-looking restaurateur; it makes me feel looked-after.
The Harts aren't the first to breathe new life into this iconic 1920s dining-room. Marco Pierre White did it in the mid-1990s, making a fair fist of it until falling out with business partner Damien Hirst and losing the joy. But the Harts have managed to revamp without reinventing, keeping the wonderful neon sign, distinctive stained-glass windows and smart parquetry, but giving the place a golden glow. The clientele,a seductive mix of silver-haired ancien régime and glammy first-daters, sit on well-upholstered chairs under a smorgasbord of modern art by Gavin Turk, Emma Biggs, Matthew Collings, and, rather pointedly, Damien Hirst. It's loud, cheery and buzzy, with what seem to be a trillion waiters led, Boudicca-like, by former Ramsayite Nikki Barltrop.
Ask British cuisine "Quo vadis?" ("Whither goest thou?"), and it could just toss you the menu here for an answer. It's an inviting list of old and new classics, from stuffed courgette flowers, crab mayonnaise, truffled scrambled eggs and turbot with salsa verde, to grills of rib, sirloin, fillet or rump of well-handled Lincolnshire beef. It's a return to the great British grill-room, lightened by rays of Mediterranean sunshine.
Starters are simple but joyful, and perfectly pitched for summer: six bouncy, pink king prawns with mayonnaise (£8.20) and a spanking fresh seabass carpaccio (£6.50) that is as pretty as a picture.
The house aperitif is a real cutie of Campari, cava and mandarin juice (£5.20), but I force myself to move on to a deeply aromatic 2006 La Roilette Fleurie from Domaine Métrat (£27) from the well-balanced French-led list.
Chef Jean-Philippe Patruno takes his inspiration from Paris's famous L'Ami Louis for the whole roast chicken (£30 for two). A brute of a British Label Anglais stuffed with thyme, bay leaves and garlic cloves, it takes an hour to roast. Then it is simply broken into great big chunks, bathed in its juices and sent out with a silver beaker of crisp, golden, salted chips (£3) and a velvety little salad of microleaves (£3.50). It is a real dig-in, lick-your-fingers sort of dish; to be shared only with someone you know well.
Puds are demure, except for a little minx of a berry-topped meringue with a cold heart of vanilla ice-cream (£6.80). Like everything else tonight, it is exactly what I felt like eating, making Quo Vadis pretty close to my ideal modern British restaurant. The Soho thing makes it artier, edgier (and louder) than The Ivy or The Wolseley, and the old-style, hands-on hospitality is a refreshing return to how things used to be. I think we are lucky to have Quo Vadis... for as long as it knows how lucky it is to have us.
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
Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, London W1, tel: 020 7437 9585. Lunch and dinner Mon-Sat, Around £100 for two, including wine and service
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