Smart and fashionable friends always seem slightly put out by the fact that Chez Bruce, our local Michelin-starred restaurant, features prominently in the London restaurant guides. It's as if any establishment outside the epicentre of the known world (that is, Chelsea and the West End) has no business to aspire to the high-profile heights enjoyed by, say, Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White. And who is this Bruce anyway, they mutter.
Indeed, I took a friend to lunch at Chez Bruce a few weeks ago to cheer him up after a stressful time at work. He prides himself on his knowledge of gourmet dining in the capital and was even prepared to acknowledge that the restaurant had achieved "quite good reviews". I replied that, yes, it had a Michelin star. "No, no," he said, smiling at what he thought was my naivety, "I don't think so. After all, this is Wandsworth!"
But now that Chez Bruce has been cited yet again by both the Zagat and Harden London restaurant guides, the muttering ought really to stop.
Why, these people ought to ask themselves, is a small restaurant in SW17 receiving the sort of accolades that used to be reserved for the very grandest establishments, such as the Connaught or the Savoy? I think it's partly because it is a small, local restaurant and thus has always been slightly more dependent on returning custom.
In London, as in any big city, the opening of a new restaurant, particularly by big hitters such as Ramsay, or Richard Caring, the owner of Le Caprice, or Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, the former owners of The Ivy (and Le Caprice), attracts huge attention. Restaurant-goers and media alike begin to salivate long before the menu is printed, and reviews are pored over with the sort of attention given by a Latin scribe to the marriage settlement of a medieval princess.
Within weeks, anyone who considers themselves to be a true metropolitan has not only eaten at the new place, but emailed all their friends with their verdict (and claimed the bill on expenses). This results in a sort of gastronomic one-night-stand syndrome. The restaurant reviewer's moving finger writes, and, having writ, moves on to the next establishment, and as it does so, fashionable London follows.
In the meantime, the restaurants don't have to rely on building up any loyalty (if they get good reviews, they're so busy they can turn people away) which allows them to practise such barbaric procedures as telling customers who want to dine at the civilised hour of 8.30pm that they will have to have swallowed their pudding in one gulp and be out of there by 10pm. Or laughing when you ring up to book a table sometime in the next two years.
People put up with this because, by then, that restaurant is another notch on the table-leg for the critics, and the cognoscenti are raving (or moaning) about the next place. It's only tourists and people who saw paparazzi pictures of Jemima Khan or Kate Moss arriving or leaving who want to eat there anyway, and they're so desperate to get a table they never stop to ponder why the receptionist is being rude and arrogant instead of friendly and welcoming. Is it any wonder that, according to Zagat, the majority of complaints about London restaurants concern service?
Ironically, many of London's fickle diners will adhere to some sort of culinary loyalty in other areas of their lives. They might well go to the same wine bar every Friday lunchtime, for example, or use the same Indian takeaway, or have Sunday roast in the same pub each week. But when it comes to fine dining, they feel they're missing out or being unimaginative if they don't try something different every time.
I can understand this attitude, but I'm too lazy to do the same. If you have a Michelin-starred restaurant down the road, why bother to schlep to some overhyped, overpriced, overcomplicated place that's the other side of London?
And as for being harangued by some hysterical self-publicist because I've asked for tomato ketchup, or salt, or committed some other apparently grievous gastronomic sin, I can do without it. (I can do without tomato ketchup as well, incidentally, because I absolutely loathe the stuff. But I like to think I'd be able to have it if I wanted it.)
At Chez Bruce, customers are welcomed with politely restrained enthusiasm, as if you were the final, honoured guests that make the dinner party complete. The staff smile. Waiters appear, which is not always the case in London restaurants. There is more than one thing on the menu that you feel like eating, which is not always the case in London restaurants. The sommelier consults, and agrees that your choice of wine – to which he has gently guided you – is a masterstroke. (How could it not be, when the wine list has become almost as famous as the restaurant?). There is no bizarre fusion thing going on, no mushrooms with custard or other stomach-turning combinations. Just top-quality ingredients cooked very, very well.
I've been to Chez Bruce for birthday treats, anniversary dinners, lunch with contacts and family celebrations. I don't go there often enough for the staff to remember me, yet I'm always made to feel that I'm being welcomed back. Which would you rather have, pomp and pretension and an expensive taxi ride home, or gastronomic bliss and a five-minute walk? It's a no-brainer, isn't it?