If there isn't a framed photo of David Niven on the wall, diner beware...

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The Independent Online

For a while I just couldn't find it. I tried all the usual suspects; pretty little taverns by the bay, the place covered in fishing nets, even somewhere called "Big Al's Shrimp Den", but no dice.

For a while I just couldn't find it. I tried all the usual suspects; pretty little taverns by the bay, the place covered in fishing nets, even somewhere called "Big Al's Shrimp Den", but no dice.

I was just about to give up when I spotted a fat cabbie and asked him. "Where is the old nice fish place in town?" He drove me into an industrial estate and, for a moment, I thought I might not just be dining with the fishes. We stopped outside a nondescript place on the side of the road and he pointed inside. I stepped in and all was well. There were the crisp white linen tablecloths, the black and white pictures on the wall and a man busy shucking oysters. Bingo, I knew there would be one somewhere, there always is.

I'm in California on a bit of a road trip north of San Francisco in wine and weed country, but I just popped down south to Monterey for a day. I tried to phone Clint in neighbouring Carmel but he wouldn't take my call. He's got all up himself now he's got that Oscar: typical.

There's something about fishing towns the world over. They've all got the one well-known place to eat. It's normally old and quaint. It's always near the port and it absolutely has to have a faded black and white picture of David Niven. He really liked liked his fish suppers. I remember being terribly disappointed when I was in Chez Sams in Essaouira in Morocco. It was a great place. Hidden behind the fishermen's nets and detritus at the bottom of the port you can easily miss it.

There was a beaming elderly owner who was a bit of a "character", by which I mean he wore a captain's hat and an eye patch. The food was gorgeous and fresh but there was just something wrong. I looked around the walls at the pictures and there was no sign of Niven. I could see that George Hamilton and Sophia Loren, among others, had graced the place, but no Niven. I called Captain Bird's Eye over and asked him whether Niven had ever supped here. Sure enough, at the mere mention of his name, he brought out a big picture of Niven winking at the camera, with his arm round a much younger Long John Silver. "David Niven, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, they have all been to my restaurant, but now everything change [sic], nobody comes no more." He looked my table up and down with his one good eye in undisguised contempt. This is another essential for this type of restaurant: it must have seen better days.

It would have particularly flourished in the late Fifties and early Sixties when movie stars patrolled the international playboy circuit and didn't sit around doing Vegan t'ai chi in their gated mansions in Beverly Hills.

Growing up in Lebanon there was a place in Byblos called Pepe Abed's which was very much on that circuit. There are still two pictures of Niven on the walls along with many a long gone Hollywood star and some slightly more dodgy French "celebrities".

A couple of years ago and the place was still going, having survived years of conflict remarkably unscathed. I was half tempted to hand Pepe a Trigger Happy TV signed photo to encourage some new blood, but I knew that Niven would have hurled it into the Med, so I desisted.

Back in Monterey I had a marvellous meal of New Zealand mussels in spicy linguini washed down with a gorgeous local Navarro white. I started chatting to the owner, a youngish Italian guy who had taken the place over from his dad, whose pictures strangling various large unfortunate fish were festooned all over the walls. I told him that I presumed he'd had many a famous face wander in here since this was essentially North Hollywood by the sea.

"Clint's been in here a couple of times and Bill Clinton ate here once." Clinton has been everywhere I've ever eaten in the States. He likes a freebie.

"What about David Niven?" I asked hopefully. He looked at me quizzically: "David who?" Time marches on.