The great escape

As Europe's largest restaurant opens this weekend in London, Peter Popham asks why a nation so indifferent to food is mad about eating out

The key to understanding Sir Terence Conran's Mezzo, his latest and largest restaurant launched last night, lies with the man he has put in charge, David Loewi, whose career has been not in stand-alone restaurants, but in hotels (Claridge's, the Carlton Tower) and on ships.

Mezzo is two restaurants: a budget one upstairs, with a menu that mixes "street" and "royal" Thai food with other oriental tastes, and a pricier one below, serving Modern British cuisine to the sound of live jazz.

But Mezzo is more than just another place to dine. With its bakery, its coffee shop and newsagent, its long sweeping bars and two vast restaurants, its bandstand and cigarette girl, Mezzo is a first-class hotel that happens not to have any rooms - a new Queen Mary permanently moored in Wardour Street in London's Soho.

Success is probably assured, not because the food is splendid but because, like a luxurious hotel or liner, it is an ideal realm of passive enjoyment and spending on pleasure. Like every restaurant or hotel that has thrived in London in the past century, it offers a symbolic escape from mundane English reality.

In other cultures, to eat in a good restaurant, large or small, is to commune with the soul of one's nation or region or city, to enter into a sort of dialogue about identity. In London, it is to flee - whether to Thailand, to Provence or, at Mezzo, to a fantasy of the Jazz Age.

The escaping urge was put into overdrive by the Eighties boom, producing fantasies with a new dimension of sophistication: the River Cafe, transporting one to an idealised Tuscany, Conran's La Cantina to somewhere in the Med, while the Ivy offered the illusion of instant media stardom. Contrary to expectations, it is a trend that the recession failed to quell; the fantasies have, instead, taken on a life of their own, growing ever larger in scale and more baroque in content. The subterranean monkish torture chamber of the huge, new Covent Garden Belgo is about as far as anyone has so far managed to go.

The English neither really care for, know about, nor have a real feeling for food. (We consume 451 million cans of baked beans per year, 224 times as much as the second largest consumer, Sweden.) The reason for this is a mystery. John Torode, Conran's Australian chef at Mezzo, blames the industrial revolution and the British climate: too much industrial processing too early in our history, not enough warm weather in which to sit around on the front step slagging off the baker's baguettes or passing round the homemade pickles.

Perhaps. But at least as great a puzzle is why, given this indifference and insensitivity, we have an enthusiasm for extravagant restaurants that has not been quelled by anything the economy has done to us.

There us little in our history to account for this passion. Tomes have been written about London with only the scantest reference to restaurants or eating. From Roy Porter's splendid new social history of London we learn when such key firms in the industrialisation of the British diet as Crosse & Blackwell, Peek Freans and Pearce Duff's built their Thameside factories; who invented fast food (a pastry cook who kept her windows open winter and summer so passersby could grab a bun from the ledge and chuck in the money). We learn that Georgian London consumed 2,975,000 bushels of flour, 100,000 oxen and 700,000 sheep and lambs each year.

But as to how and where these monstrous quantities were served, to what recipes, by what celebrated chefs, following what new culinary fads, Porter is silent. It was cooked. It was eaten. End of story. "Although excellent eaters," a German visitor remarked in 1801, "the English would, I think, go without breakfast or supper rather than neglect their morning or evening papers." Priorities were clear.

London's first contribution to the vocabulary of eating in public is probably the "chop house", in which the city abounded in the 18th century. None of the original ones remain, but the much more recent Quality Chop House in Farringdon gives a good idea of how they must have been: the diners sitting on long narrow benches across long narrow tables in stalls. Already the London restaurant had the aspect of a machine for eating in: neither private nor convivial, but probably fast and efficient, with an admirable turnaround time.

Elsewhere were springing up the pie and mash shops, eel shops, fish and chip shops, and the pubs that would fry you a steak if you were desperate. But the history of London as a place to eat good food in comfort only gets going towards the end of the last century, with the arrival in strength of foreign immigrants: the French chefs who took a mad gamble and started the Ritz, the Savoy, the Cafe Royal, Prunier, the Eiffel Tower and the rest; and the unheralded others: the Chinese in Limehouse, later the Cypriots in Fitzrovia, later still the Bengalis everywhere, and after that, the deluge.

The arrival of immigrants was the beginning of the salvation of London's collective palate. Everywhere people migrate they open restaurants; first for themselves, because they're homesick and need a place to gather, a refuge from alien surroundings; second because, apart from labour pure and simple, the food of home is the one commodity they can conjure up wherever they are.

In cities with a rich and robust culinary tradition of their own, the restaurants of the ghetto cater principally for its residents plus the odd adventurous outsider. Not so in London: more and more English had travelled sufficiently widely to realise that English food was no good; more and more, indeed, were homesick for Abroad. The Greek, Italian, Hungarian and other foreign restaurants that sprang up in the first half of the century rapidly filled with locals, particularly those whose bohemian lives and left-wing politics made the urge to escape from stifling Englishness almost irresistible.

George Orwell was typical of this tendency: despite his austere self- image and his resolution at the end of Down and Out in Paris and London never again to eat in an expensive restaurant, he frequented such Soho and Fitzrovia redoubts as the Hungarian Czarda, Bertorelli (London's first Italian restaurant, founded in 1912), and the Elysee and other Greek restaurants in Percy Street.

Yet Orwell was typical of his generation of English diners in other ways, too. He tucked into foreign food with great relish but little knowledge, and with a palate corrupted by boarding school. Arthur Koestler recalled scornfully how Orwell praised the Elysee's terrible moussaka, saying "in all London there wasn't anywhere else that you could get food like that". Koestler added acidly, "George had no taste in food".

Yet in his usual perspicacious way Orwell identified the other, sinister strand in English catering, the relentless industrialisation that was overtaking it: the 162 teashops of the Aerated Bread Company, the Lyons Corner Houses, which rolled out 10 miles of swiss roll every day and manufactured millions of "frood" (frozen cooked food) meals, the milk bars that served "no real food at all ... Everything comes out of a carton or a tin, or is hauled out of a refrigerator or squirted out of a tap or squeezed out of a tube."

When the two tendencies, mediocre ethnic and industrial, came together in the person of Charles Forte (who ran one of the rival chains of milk bars), London once again stared into a culinary abyss. But although the Fortes have done their worst ever since, the abyss has been avoided.

Conran and the late Elizabeth David are chiefly to be thanked for it. Between them they have been the salvation of British cooking. David began the slow, painful education of the British palate, which proceeds by fits and starts to this day, and which has flowered in the improbable but splendid form of Modern British cooking. Conran has, like the Fortes, built up a chain of restaurants, but unlike them, there is nothing chain-like about his.

Each of Conran's restaurants - Pont de la Tour, Neal Street, Bibendum, Butler's Wharf and the others, latterly Quaglino's and now Mezzo - is distinct and individual. The culinary qualities of each - dictated by Conran and the respective chefs - are stratospherically high compared to the London norm of, say, 20 years ago. But Conran's success is due to his recognition of the fact that in London, fine cooking is never enough. Too many Londoners still wouldn't know it if it hit them in the face. But what none fail to recognise, and go for, is the restaurant as instant party, instant carnival, instant buzz, a place to be seen.

London diners today, as 100 years ago at the Ritz, demand to be taken out of themselves, to escape. That is what matters most. The trend for vast restaurants, of which Mezzo is the latest, most gargantuan example, illustrates this perfectly. London has far better Japanese noodles to offer than those at Wagamama, the enormous noodle specialist near New Oxford Street - but what does that matter compared to the buzz of standing in line, of being crammed elbow to elbow with strangers, of watching the waiter send your order by computer? Covent Garden's new Belgo capitalises on the same thrill of the huge, strange, rather cruel ambience, which successfully drowns out consideration of the food.

Mezzo is a more classy and restrained performance, but it is tapping the same urge to party in strange spaces. Conran's reputation ensures that great effort will be taken to make it also a good place to eat. But, critics apart, it would probably still go down a storm if it wasn't.

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