Food & Drink: Restaurants - The way we were

Why the British diner has never had it so good. Plus, the seven ages of eating out. By Caroline Stacey
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It is a truth recently acknowledged that income can be disposed of on eating out without guilt - and without a particularly good excuse. For, while anecdotal evidence suggests there have been standard-bearing restaurants in Britain since the 1960s, most of us never went near them.

Now, the market research group Mintel's Eating Out Review reports that 95 per cent of the population eat out - with almost one in five doing it more than once a week: "Rising levels of disposable income and convenience trends have spurred growth in this sector by more than 30 per cent over the last five years." Which means, in practice, that we're eating more fast food, fish and chips and takeaways than ever before. But although most eating out is now done by genre - pizza, Mexican, curry or Chinese tonight? - the corollary is that it has become more democratic.

Yet it is only since the Eighties that we have been able to find places for any purpose. Those of us who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies have had to take a crash course in world cuisines to catch up. In spite of coming from a home with a fondue set, I don't remember entering an Indian restaurant until I was a student in the late Seventies. Curry? We could make our own with a garnish of sultanas, dessicated coconut and banana slices. Now eight-year-olds specify which of the neighbouring gastropubs they would like to be taken to on their birthday.

And they can choose to eat anything from anywhere in the world. Although Indian food has been available since Veeraswamy (now unrecognisable as an Indian restaurant) opened on Regent Street 70 years ago, the number of restaurants didn't make their presence really felt until the Seventies. In 1950, there were six Indian restaurants in Britain. In 1970, it was 2,000, and by the mid-Eighties that number had doubled.

But to eat properly, to really splash out on gourmet cooking, meant French. Outside London, at that time, says Tom Jaine, former editor of the Good Food Guide, now owner of Prospect Books, there were a few beacons in the provinces. The Elizabeth David-inspired gourmet pioneers such as George Perry-Smith at the Hole in the Wall in Bath, set alight the imagination of diners, even though more people were actually treating themselves to steak and apple pie. The Sixties bistro, a blend of diluted French, trattoria and school dinners, represented the trickle-down effect of the best, more faithful continental cooking: see Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham's The Prawn Cocktail Years for recipes. Terence Conran's first restaurant, the Soup Kitchen, opened in the King's Road in 1953. For a rough idea of what it was like, visit the Chelsea Kitchen in the King's Road.

This watershed era was when Richard Walton and Colin Smith left Robert Carrier's trailblazing London restaurant to open Chez Moi in Holland Park. In the beginning, says Walton, it was a French restaurant, with only French waiters, chefs and menus. Thirty years later, it is a perfect microcosm of changing tastes. The menu is all in English and may include curried chicken and Moroccan tagine. As Walton explains, the greatest change for chefs and customers has been the growing availability of ingredients that allow proper reproduction of other cuisines. How prescient: sushi bars will double in London by the turn of the century, predicts Marketpower.

London, challenging New York as one of the most varied and vibrant cities to eat in, now offers the cuisines of at least 60 countries, with many more regions and specialities, and 19 Michelin-starred places - more than any other world city except Paris.

Meanwhile, progress has been patchy across the country. "We still don't have a restaurant culture," says Tom Jaine. Outside London, notable restaurants are few and far between. And if you take away the Rick Steins, Paul Heathcotes and Raymond Blancs, little has changed, he claims. "There are so few provincial restaurants you can't get in them".

One that shows how customers will travel the country to restaurants run with passion and dedication, is the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny. For more than 30 years, impervious to fashion and competition, Franco Taruschio has, like Chez Moi, kept abreast, even ahead, of changing tastes.

From the beginning, the Taruschios' bistro and dining room was one in the eye for the received idea that good food meant formality. "If we were busy, people would sit on the floor and eat oysters and drink champagne," says Ann Taruschio. Through the fashion for nouvelle cuisine and ruched curtains, the Taruschios kept the faith, and their customers. lnstead of passing fads, Franco updated Welsh recipes, unearthed old Italian ones and, when the couple adopted a Thai daughter in 1977, was influenced by south-east Asian cooking. Latterly, again a sign of the times, the Walnut Tree is benefiting from the boom in television cookery. A six-part series, so far broadcast only in Wales has, says Ann Taruschio, brought in new customers who might otherwise have been intimidated by a restaurant with their reputation.

Television has had a huge influence on our appetites and willingness to experiment in what we cook. But has it really made much difference to where we eat? It may not send the Ready Steady Cook audience rushing to Antony Worrall Thompson's Woz in north Kensington or Brian Turner's restaurant in Knightsbridge, but it probably explains how Caesar salad and salmon teriyaki arrived at Beefeater. And it is the pub restaurant that is emerging as the way forward in eating out. In Mintel's survey, more than half the sample had eaten in a pub in the past three months. London's "polenta pubs" have introduced unpretentious, earthy food to go with beer, wine and a scrum for somewhere to sit. Country pubs are often the best and most reasonably priced places to eat. "We will return to the pub, in the way they were meant to be - like an inn. And we will have returned to where we were before they thought up the crazy idea of bistros on the streets of Wellingborough," says Tom Jaine.

Where to eat by age

Suggestions representing the past 30 years for each decade of a diner's life.

0-10 Children's choices

Bank, 1 Kingsway, London, WC2 (0171-379 9797) Brunch in colourfully butch, indestructible and large space - one of London's new mega-restaurants - with a visible kitchen for diversion.

Pizza Express. Any town. Rampantly expanding plc, but by far the best chain for all ages. Design differs from branch to branch, pizzas don't.

Le Petit Blanc, 71-72 Walton Street, Oxford (01865 510999). Raymond Blanc's downtown brasserie gives children French lessons in eating out with their own three-course menu.

10-20 For fun and food

Belgo Centraal, 50 Earlham Street, London, WC2 (0171-813 2233). Forget most theme restaurants (avoid at all costs the Fashion Cafe); this Belgian basement has wit as well as novelty, and waiters dressed in monks' habits. Hot and noisy.

Browns, 82-84 St Martin's Lane, London, W1 (0171-497 5050). Fresh and dependable Anglo-American food - good quality salads and burgers and pasta, in strangely 1970s surroundings. Branches in Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge and Oxford, to introduce students to civilised eating out.

Tiger Lil's, 16a Southside, Clapham Common, London, SW4 (0171-720 5433). Interactive cooking: help yourself to raw ingredients, wok chefs add sauces and stir fry while you wait. The acceptable face of fast food, good for vegetarian adolescents. Branches in Islington and Chelsea.

20-30 The right style and price

Mash & Air, 40 Choriton Street, Manchester (0161-661 1111.) Mash, the cheaper level of the new Manchester microbrewery has that hot topic, a wood-burning oven for its pizzas. The whole place is futurist and fabulous.

Mezzonine, 100 Wardour Street, London Wl (0171-314 4000). Of all the Conran places, this is the most original - south-east Asian street food - one of the cheapest and liveliest and provides the spectacle of what's supposed to be Europe's largest restaurant.

Wagamama, 10A Lexington Street, London, W1 (0171-292 0990). Minimalist, canteen-like Japanese noodle bar with hi-tech service - orders taken by handheld computer pad, and a no-smoking policy.

30-40 Maturity and more money

Simply Heathcotes, Jackson Row, Deansgate, Manchester (0161-835 3536). Big, bold, colourful brasserie with Philippe Starck furnishings, and regional cooking to prove London doesn't get all the best lines.

Sugar Club, 33a All Saint's Road, London, W11 (0171-221 3844). By far the best in the global food market. Kangaroo salad Thai-style, pig's cheeks with sweet potato - a New Zealand chef pulls off such stunts in a smart, professional restaurant. Royal Native Oyster Stores, The Horsebridge, Whitstable, Kent (01227 276 856). Like a seaside shoot from Elle Decoration, this breezy seafood restaurant brings a breath of fresh air to out-of-town dining, and the arthouse cinema upstairs brings added bohemian hip.

40-50 Not cheap, but for treats

Aubergine, 11 Park Walk, London, SW10 (0171-352 3449). Patient enough to wait months for a table? Gordon Ramsay's reinventions of classic French cooking are the talk of the town.

McCoy's, The Cleveland Tontine, Staddlebridge, North Yorkshire (01609 882671). Engaging, idiosyncratic roadhouse with skilfully eclectic food matched by cluttered decor. Prices and cooking put it on par with anything in London, and it animates North Yorkshire like nothing else.

The Walnut Tree, Llandewi Skirrid, Monmouthshire (01873 852797). Worth travelling miles for. Chaotic enough to put off the less agile, but nobody leaves disappointed by Franco Taruschio's Italian cooking that's put down local roots.

50-60 Still stylish

Capital Hotel, 22-24 Basil Street, London, SW3 (0171-589 5171). Small, perfectly formed townhouse hotel dining room ensures discretion and clever but restrained cooking.

Chez Moi, 1 Addison Avenue, London W11 (0171-603 8267). Comfortable, romantic, unfaded favourite of west London's older adventurers.

Ubiquitous Chip, 12 Ashton Lane, Glasgow (0141-334 5007). Big, but not boisterous, characterful but not uncomfortable. And has a quarter of a century behind it. For all ages, but especially those who want to feel younger than they are.

Over 60 Before it's too late

The Connaught, Carlos Place, W1 (0171-499 7070). Enter a profoundly reassuring Edwardian world of French and English food and service.

Restaurant Elizabeth, 82 St Aldate's, Oxford (01865 242230). The 1960s English version of a formal French restaurant, preserved in aspic.

Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street, London, W1 (0171-408 0881). Because if you haven't been by now, you should.