We recently got home from our 10th successive summer holiday in Cornwall – staying in the same room of the same hotel overlooking Constantine Bay, near Padstow. Every year when we settle our bill we book again for the same 10 days the following year, but this time we decided on a radical break with family tradition, and announced that we would be skipping Cornwall in 2008 to go somewhere new, by which I don't mean Devon or even Dorset, but somewhere far-flung, such as California.
This means that we will have to forsake another annual Cornwall ritual – dinner at Rick Stein's Seafood Restaurant, of which more later in this column.
The hotel we have stayed in for the past decade is a traditional English seaside hotel, with the many, many virtues of such an establishment – among them a white-haired maître d' of distinguished bearing and impeccable discretion – but also some of the deficiencies, not least a dining room that has been bypassed by the British food revolution in much the way that an elderly, slightly myopic cyclist might be bypassed by an Aston Martin.
We book on a half-board basis because it is much more economical to do so, but each year we open the green leather-bound menu (which is heavy enough to withstand Kalashnikov fire in the unlikely event of it having to) in the weary certainty that the dishes will be the same ones we first tasted in 1997 – and even then had been knocking around since the early 1970s.
A starter this year of sardines with courgettes and mustard sauce was as spectacularly gruesome as it sounds. It is for this reason that Jane and I look forward to our pilgrimage to the Seafood Restaurant like children look forward to Christmas, except with slightly more of a tendency to jump up and down shouting "Yippee!"
Not everyone we know is a fan. There are some who consider it overpriced and over-hyped. And of course there are some in Padstow and around who consider Stein too bally successful by far. But in all the years we have been going we have never had anything other than marvellous, unfussy food and excellent, fairly priced wine, served by efficient and friendly staff, in a room that should be a model to all restaurateurs: light, airy, adorned with good, eclectic art, and filled with the cheerful hubbub of people who would rather be there than just about anywhere else on earth.
There was an additional buzz to the hubbub this year because Stein himself was stopping by some tables to say hello, even though he is not a natural at the mine host thing.
On our way to Padstow, our taxi driver spotted him quaffing outside at a roadside pub, and it could be that it was Dutch courage in his glass, for, despite his charismatic TV persona, in person he comes across as an engagingly hesitant, slightly diffident, rather dishevelled fellow.
Anyway, we had a chat with him and he told us that over the winter the restaurant is to be refurbished, and a seafood bar installed so that people can wander in off the street without booking.
At present, if you want an 8.30pm table for four on a Friday evening in August, you need to have booked by the previous December, a degree of forward planning which somehow seems at odds with the laid-back atmosphere of the place. So the bar can only be a good thing, although Stein looked a trifle worried when I irreverently wondered whether it might look a little like Terminal 2 at Heathrow Airport. As long as he doesn't stick a red Ferrari in there, and sell £60 spot-the-ball tickets for a chance of winning it, he should be OK.
To make room for toilets in the new-look Seafood Restaurant he has bought a chunk of the adjacent Metropole Hotel, a grey monolith of negligible architectural merit.
The purchase will doubtless be grist to the mill of those who persist in peddling the Padstein nonsense, moaning that he is taking over the town. He is squarely blamed by some for locals being knocked off the property ladder by second-homers, but heaven knows how much he is worth in income from tourism. As for the building work, it seems to me that he should be applauded for changing a winning and highly lucrative formula.
It's easy enough to change a failing business; to change a successful one takes guts, and vision.
The French put us to shame
While I have no wish to come across as a Victor Meldrew on the subject of eating out in this country (see left), it can still, despite many strides forward, be an unbelievably dispiriting experience.
On our way home from Cornwall this year, unwilling to take out a second mortgage for lunch for five at the motorway services just outside Exeter, we left the M5 at junction 26 and tootled along the A38, certain that we'd find a nice country pub. At the first one we tried, we were told we'd have to wait 45 minutes. We then followed signs to another place, which took us along a country lane three inches narrower than our Volvo, only to find that it was closed.
So we ended up in Wellington, trudging up and down and finding nowhere remotely tempting. As we sat in a caff, eating baguettes that would not have been recognised as such by any Frenchman, Jane made the point that in a French town of equivalent size there would be so many options we could all have eaten somewhere different, and something wonderful.