London Restaurants

GILES PLAYFAIR, who divides his time between England and the United States, is the author of a biography of Edmund Kean and of Singapore Goes Off the Air, an account of his war experiences as production director of the Malaya Broadcasting Corporation.

IF, as I have no reason whatever to suspect, I am appointed chairman of the British Tourist and Holidays Board, I shall immediately advertise London as an attractive place for the gourmet and even the glutton to visit. I shall be permitting myself a mild publicist’s license — no more.

True, the extraordinarily bad restaurants for which London has long been famous are outdoing themselves at present, while the few places which wore regarded before the war as exceptional are not, on the whole, providing much contrast.

The British Tourist and Holidays Board blames this situation on the rationing regulations; and though it is the Government’s own creature, it has begged in vain for them to be relaxed. As things stand, size of custom, not pretensions to quality, determines what small quota of rationed foods a restaurant may lawfully buy.

Further, no public eating place may serve a meal that exceeds five shillings in price or consists of more than one main dish (for example, meat, fish, or egg entree) and two subsidiary dishes (such as soup and cheese). Though places with heavy overheads are permitted to levy an approved supplementary house charge, this is usually insufficient to bring their prices up to the pre-war level when costs were considerably lower. On the other hand, these prices seem excessive for the standard fare provided.

The purpose of the regulations, when they were introduced near the beginning of the war, was to reduce the disparity between the highestclass establishments and the lowest. Despite the fact that the latter have gratefully seized the opportunity to sink lower still, this purpose has largely been achieved. In principle, a restaurant which levies a sixshilling house charge can afford to be more lavish with unrationed foods, such as fish and poultry, than a restaurant which levies no house charge at all. But, since the supply of rationed foods to which each is entitled is proportionately the same, the wisplike pat of butter, the lonely lump of sugar, and the scarce and indeterminate meat are liable to be equally characteristic of both.

Nevertheless, I know from experience that most visitors to London make eating a needlessly painful ordeal for themselves through their failure to explore. Something of a mushroom growth of new ones has occurred in the past few years. Simultaneously, competition has sharpened and respect for controls has dwindled. As a result, certain places are a good deal hotter than they should he, and their number is on the increase.

These are the places to make for. But the difficulty is to find them, for the British Tourist and Holidays Board is either unaware of their existence or else is disinclined to boast about them. At any rate, it leaves them unlisted in its travel guides.

They are not confined to the West End. A district like Kensington, which before the war was a gastronomic center of nothing but popular cafes (now transformed into horrible imitations of the American cafeteria) and genteel tearooms, today has its several restaurants, and a search among them, though admittedly hazardous, may well prove rewarding.

Indeed, London’s own undespairing bons viveurs can be tempted almost any distance by the prospect of some new relief from the starchy monotony of their everyday diet.

Recently, for instance, a public house in the rough East End dock area, called the Prospect of Whitby, has become the object of a nightly trek. The fashionable people who take part in this — and Princess Margaret Rose has been of their number— may find a certain picaresque appeal in the bar of the Prospect of Whitby, which is crowded with local custom and loud with the playing of zithers and mandolins. But the real attraction is the upstairs dining room, overlooking the river, where steak can be had as the main course of a five-shilling dinner.

The Colombo d’Or in Barter Street (Soho) serves excellent. Italian food, cooked to order, for no more than the legal price. Ling Manis in Gerard Street (Soho) has rather the appearance of a barn and, like a barn, is for some reason nearly always empty. But its menu is as comprehensive as any I have known in a Chinese restaurant west of the Far East, and the price of a meal, if three or four partake of it, will probably work out at less than five shillings a head.

I might also include in this cheap category Wheelers in Old Compton Street (Soho) and the George and Dragon in the Fulham Road (South Kensington), though they are a bit costlier than the other places I have mentioned. Wheelers serves cold food only, but is particularly good for shellfish. I should add that oysters, in common with liquid refreshment of any kind, do not, legally speaking, constitute part of a meal, so that an extra charge may be made for them.

The George and Dragon is not, as its name would indicate, an old established pub, but a brand-new, glass-fronted restaurant, which levies an authorized one-shilling house charge and specializes in wines at comparatively reasonable prices. A large pot of butter is displayed on each candlelit table, and also a supply of cigarettes. The latter is, in my experience, a unique restaurant service and must surely be so in Britain, where cigarettes are at a premium. The set dinner at the George and Dragon usually features Wiener Schnitzel, an extreme rarity.

Some pirate restaurants violate the price limitation more or less openly, on the apparently justified theory that they are too insignificant to attract unwelcome visitors from the Ministry of Food. One such occupies two floors of a converted dwelling in Wright’s Lane off the

Kensington High Street. Here prices are unashamedly à la carte, and the menu includes fresh egg omelets for approximately three shillings and sixpence, and two or three different roasts for approximately a shilling more. A satisfying three-course meal costs about ten shillings.

The most expensive places, however, refrain from violating the price rule, except at the request of favored customers, for whom they can produce virtually any dish required. Instead, they dodge its effect lawfully by charging such astronomic prices for drinks and other extras — as, for example, the alcohol used in the preparation of a dish like crépes Sweetie that they can absorb a loss on the meals.

Of these places, I would name the Caprice in Arlington Street (Piccadilly), which was opened about two years ago and is held in particularly high regard by members of the theatrical profession. It has a first-class cuisine by any standard, and its advertised menu offers a wide choice of the richer types of food (for example, game) for a fixed price of five shillings plus a four-shilling house charge.

I would also mention the Moulin d’Or in Romilly Street (Soho). Here the house charge is only one shilling and sixpence, and the range of menu items is smaller than at the Caprice, but an enjoyable meal can always be relied on.

At both of these restaurants it is essential to book a table in advance, and it is advisable, if a second visit is contemplated, to spend fairly generously on extras the first time.