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London’s Best Dining
By Ian Fleming
My friends may raise their eyebrows at finding me masquerading as an authority on what are coyly known as the “pleasures of the table,” but in fact my credentials are exceptional. To begin with, I am not a card-carrying gourmet. Although I own a first edition of Brillat-Savarin's Physiologie du Goût, I opened it only once to read the curious passage relating to aphrodisiacs. Secondly, l will eat or drink almost anything so long as it tastes good. Finally, and most important, I have never received a free mouthful of food or drink from any restaurant in the world. I don't even know the names of too many headwaiters in London.
But I do know the name of the headwaiter on the first floor at Scott’s. It is Baker, and I know it because he did his best to have me arrested as a German spy during the war. I was in Naval Intelligence, and a fellow officer from the Submarine Service and I were trying to get the captured captain and navigator from a U-boat drunk at Scott's so as to worm out of them how they avoided our mine fields in the Skagerrak. They had been “allowed out” of their prison camp for a day's “sightseeing” in London, and we were playing the rather clumsy role of brother officers talking chummily about the sea with other brother officers whom we were only fighting because of the politicians.
Baker, then a waiter, became suspicious of our extraordinary conduct and soon we were encircled by harmless-looking couples picking at bits of fish.
It was only when we got back to the Admiralty, befuddled and no wiser about the Skagerrak, that a furious Director of Naval Intelligence told us that the only result of our secret mission had been to mobilise half the narks of the Special Branch of Scotland Yard. But that is the only reason I happen to know Baker's name.
I think good English food is the best in the world. The food I like eating in London and which l regard as unsurpassed is: Colchester and Whitstable oysters; all English fish, particularly Dover soles; Scottish smoked salmon; potted shrimps; lamb cutlets; roast beef; York ham; nearly all the English vegetables, particularly asparagus and peas; English savouries and most English fruits.
The problem in England is how to eat good English food without bad English cooking. Just as I think all Americans cook fried eggs and bacon well, so, in England, I think the best lowest-common-denominator dish is fish-and-chips, and I strongly recommend the adventurous-minded American tourist travelling round Britain to eat his lunch in a fish-and-chips shop rather than in a hotel or a restaurant. If he is dismayed by the slatternly interiors of these places, he can always take his meal out in a paper bag and eat it in the woods or the fields or parks.
One other practical hint for the tourist: it is extremely difficult to get a good Martini anywhere in England. In London restaurants and hotels the way to get one is to ask for a double dry Martini made with vodka. The way I get one to suit me in any pub is to walk calmly and confidently up to the bar and, speaking very distinctly, ask the man or girl behind it to put plenty of ice in the shaker (they nearly all have a shaker), pour in six gins and one dry vermouth (enunciate “dry” carefully) and shake until I tell them to stop.
You then point to a suitably large glass and ask them to pour the mixture in. Your behaviour will create a certain amount of astonishment, not unmixed with fear, but you will have achieved a very large and fairly good Martini, and it will cost you about $1.25.
To return to food. I see that Congressman James Tumulty, of New Jersey, on his return home to the U.S. recently described England as “the only country where it takes ten men in formal clothes to serve you melted mud.”
To this I will only quote that even more famous American citizen, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee: “In Europe you have a different taste sensation every ten miles. In America you can travel six thousand miles and you get the same taste every mile....”
But I know what Mr. Tumulty means. He probably tried having luncheon in railway hotels at 12:30. I cannot identify the melted mud. It may have been chocolate mousse or cottage pie. I would have substituted boiled boots.
In fact, I repeat that good English food is the best in the world and that you can eat a good meal of it, including a glass of lager beer or wine, coffee and tip (10 to 15 per cent, according to your mood), for something under $3.00.
You should start with smoked salmon, potted shrimps, or pâté maison, and then have English sole, turbot, plaice, lobster or crab, with fresh vegetables, followed by cheese or a savoury such as angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon on toast); herring roes on toast; or a Scotch woodcock (a small amount of scrambled eggs crisscrossed with anchovies). Instead of the fish, double lamb cutlets, roast beef or saddle of lamb is nearly always on the menu and, in the best restaurants, except in the case of lamb, these items rarely have been frozen.
Steaks can be had, of course, but in England they are not a usual cut of meat.
Drinking coffee or tea with your meal is unheard of in English restaurants, and anyway the coffee is wishy-washy except in the espresso bars. You probably won't care very much for the beer either, but the lagers (English, German and Dutch) are quite like American beer and are frequently served iced (!). Most restaurants have good wines en carafe. Wines in bottles and champagnes are first-class but often farcically expensive. Stout, notably Guinness, is an excellent drink with oysters and fish. Even better is Black Velvet, which is half-and-half stout and champagne in a tankard.
If, poor beast, you hope to see “interesting people” during mealtime, you may not be in luck. There are no “coterie” restaurants in London any more, in the sense that the old Café Royal in Regent Street used to be the haunt of artists and writers; after-the-theatre supper at the Savoy Grill is probably your best bet.
Here are my favourite London restaurants, in alphabetical order:
The Ivy (French)
Overton’s (Sea food—opposite Victoria Station)
Overton’s (St. James’s Street)
Pimm’s (several of them in the City)
Quo Vadis (Italian)
Scott's (Sea food)
Wheelers (Sea food—Old Compton Street)
Wheelers (Duke of York Street)
Addresses are in the telephone book, and you'd better book a table.
There are countless other restaurants and hotels where you can eat first-class English, French, Italian or Hungarian cooking. A reliable selection is in The Good Food Guide by Raymond Postgate, which you can buy at any London bookstore.
That is about all I have to say about English food. If one eats badly in England—or in any other country, for the matter of that—it is generally one's own fault.
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