The enforced isolation of the last few months has been a time for taking stock. Our relationships, the nature of work, the kind of society we’d like our children to grow up in – all came up for consideration. As we explore our cities looking for signs of contactless retail life, I find myself asking about the lessons of the lockdown. Is it to stay safe and squeeze out a few more breaths at the fag end of life? Or is it a reminder to live life to the full, and to go out on song “ Non, je ne regrette rien”.
I dined recently with a friend who worries about her 87 year old father’s travel plans. He is steadfastly insistent on visiting Provence and the Mediterranean in the coming weeks. My friend worries about her father’s potential exposure to Covid 19. But she isn’t standing in his way – even if she could. She recognises that he’s keeping to his travel schedule not because he thinks he’s immortal, but precisely because he knows that he’s not.
The lesson of our collective brush with mortality is not that we should be more careful. It is the opposite. It is that we must avoid regrets. To paraphrase Erma Bombeck, “you don’t want to be one of those people on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart!”
I’ve had a good lockdown. I ate well and drank better. I got to know my neighbours. We started a tradition of weekly cocktail soirées (socially distanced and on the street) that continues to this day. However, when restaurants were allowed to open in London, I was ready. The novelty of washing my own dishes had worn off. To break my restaurant fast I chose old favourites – places with excellent service and consistent food. Places that wouldn’t disappoint.
The Wolseley is one of those lovely high ceilinged restaurants that invoke the glamor of the inter war years. Once a showroom for the now sadly defunct Wolseley car company, it is the centrepiece of Chris Corbin and Jeremy King’s restaurant empire. The food is unexceptional but consistent – the continental brasserie style menu is of superior quality to any you will find across the channel. The waiters are nicer too. The cocktails are expertly mixed .The atmosphere is cosseting. Co-owner Chris Corbin remains a spritely presence, visiting every one of his restaurants daily, greeting customers and staff and keeping a firm hand and on the tiller.
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Gin and IT aka a sweet martini. The lighting makes the lemon oils in the drink pop. A classic cocktail – the IT stands for Italian. It combines gin and red vermouth – which are made with similar botanicals. Add the alcohol in equal parts. Stir over ice with a dash of orange bitters. Strain. Squeeze a lemon peel to release the oils and garnish. The combination of similar botanicals aged in different alcohol makes this a fabulous tasty drink with a hint of creaminess on the palate. Definitely #trythisathome . . #cocktails #cocktail #gin #gindrinks #gincocktails #drinkingathome #coronavirusdrinks
I started with a Gin and IT, also know as a Gin and Italian or a Sweet Martini. Gin and red vermouth are made using similar botanicals. Aging the botanicals in different alcohols and then combining them creates a tasty drink with a hint of creaminess on the palate. The Wolseley’s version is spot one.
All the good stuff at the Wolseley remains unchanged. However the prices have changed and I don’t expect them to come back down. The Wolseley has upped its service charge from 12.5% to 15% in order to “support their staff”. Never mind that the government has granted it a 15% break on value added tax and that my bill was about 20% higher than I expected. I guess life just became more expensive.
At least my favourite restaurants are maintaining their standards. The dragon lady at the reception desk at China Tang politely but firmly explained to the Arabian princess in spangly shorts that the evening meal requires appropriate attire. “But these are Gucci shorts” she cried, stomping her jewel encrusted Prada sneakers. She was offered a take out menu.
The spirit of the late Sir David Tang remains alive and well at his eponymous restaurant. The chopsticks are still made of solid sterling silver, just as they were at the China Club in old Hong Kong. Waiters in starched white uniforms with highly polished brass buttons move serenely between tables topping up glasses from the champagne trolley. The service charge here has gone up just a point to 13.5%, although the bottom half of their wine list appears to have disappeared.
Prices haven’t changed at my local seafood haunt, Olivomare in Victoria. Not all their staff have made it back from furlough. Those that have, struggle to squeeze back into their work clothes. The service is a bit rusty. But the fish is superb – supremely fresh, delicately cooked, with that confident burst of spice that first drew me here. The service charge remains optional.
London is back. It’s your turn now. Support your local restaurants and pubs. They need you. And you need them.
Postscript – Lockdown Success Stories
Some retailers rose to the occasion more than others. Durex condoms ran a brilliantly opportunistic ad campaign: