We had lunch at the Old Fire Engine House in Ely today. That in itself would be worthy of a post because the food is pretty good, there’s an acceptable wine list and service is intelligent and excellent. But there’s a twist. I first went to the Old Fire Engine House sometime in 1970. That’s 50 years ago and it got me thinking. Which iconic restaurants have I visited way back and are still in business today? I say iconic (a) to narrow the field a little but also (b) to highlight ones with a certain distinctive character. There aren’t many and I can’t find one to beat 50 years.
1 The Old Fire Engine House in Ely, UK (http://www.theoldfireenginehouse.co.uk). I was sharing a house with Ed Libbey and Mike Moles (sadly deceased) in Cambridge in the first year of our post-graduate studies (t was also to be my last but that’s another story). Mike’s father lived in Geneva and had given or loaned him a fine old Mercedes which he decorated with flower power stickers and drove around in some style. One Sunday we decided to drive out to Ely for lunch and that was my first visit. I’ve no idea what we ate or what it cost and although we all had cameras I have no record of the event.
Fortunately I’ve been back half a dozen or so times since the late 90s, once and most notably with other Churchill graduates in 2005 when we took a sadly rather old Dick Tizard out to lunch. It hasn’t changed. It’s a long way from being a formulaic restaurant and it doubles as a local art gallery so there are always pictures on show and for sale. The menu is handwritten and predictable. It’s very English with unfussy standards like roast lamb, pigeon pie and sherry trifle. But the food is expertly cooked, the vegetables are pleasantly al dente and there’s a good wine list with a decent choice by the glass. Plus, and as I mentioned before, the service is intelligent and excellent and that’s rather important in these Covid days. Today we were required to use a hand sanitizer on entry and to provide our names and contact information, the tables were spread out and the staff wore masks. You just hope that it gets through these difficult times successfully and is still around and largely unchanged in another 50 years.
2 Rules in Covent Garden, London, UK (https://rules.co.uk). In the early 70s I was working for Shell in London in its operational research group. There was a bunch of us who’d been there long enough to be moderately well paid and once in a while we’d find a reason to enjoy lunch at somewhere a little more upmarket than a Berni Inn. Rules was an easy walking distance from Shell Centre and we had lunch there a few times. Usually it was a Friday and I guess we’d write off the afternoon. I remember Iain Taylor, Colin Willis, Frank Fuller and Peter Mackay (another sadly deceased). We didn’t exclude women from our group, there just weren’t any.
Rules claims to be London’s oldest restaurant (funded 1798) and will always I guess be of a type: English food and French wines, oysters and beef and Dover sole, port and stilton, puddings not deserts, waiters in white aprons, starched white table cloths with china and glassware to match. Today it’s not cheap with mains running at £25 plus. It’s probably no longer to my taste.
3 Vlado’s in Melbourne, Australia (https://www.vlados.com.au). I lived in Hong Kong in the late 70s and had a job which took me around Asia, Australia and New Zealand. One time when I visited Melbourne I was taken to Vlado’s. To say it’s a steakhouse is an understatement. If you wanted anything other than steak you didn’t go to Vlado’s. I was in the company of Al Kleindienst (son of Richard Kleindienst, US Attorney General in the Watergate times) who worked with me in Hong Kong, and Ian Faulkner who worked locally. Coincidentally it was Ian who employed me but then got himself transferred just as I joined the company.
I don’t remember too much of the dinner except that it was steak and that the portions were not small. And I guess that it was BYO so every so often we had to run across the road to a bottle shop from another bottle of wine. Nowadays you can have a set menu (sausages, meat entree, steak and dessert) for A$105. I was in Melbourne 2017 and checked out Vlado’s but it was just a little too far from our hotel and did I want such a big steak? It’s still there but presently closed whilst the state of Victoria goes though a fairly heavy lock down to get itself through a second wave of Covid. I trust that it will survive.
4 Kroenenhalle in Zurich, Switzerland (https://www.kronenhalle.ch). I transferred to Switzerland in 1979 and earlier that year we paid a quick visit to see what Juni and I were getting ourselves in for. On the first night we were taken out for dinner at Kronenhalle which is a splendid combination of fine dining and casual eating. To some extent it’s a Swiss Rules but with a little more life. The food is traditional Swiss (lots of veal and pork and lake fish), the service is exquisite and, if anything, it’s a trifle rowdy. There’s art on the walls, the waiting staff are in black and white and speak multiple languages, and you generally have to book. Kronenhalle was founded in 1924 and, according to the web-site, it ‘became the meeting point of writers and artists’. Maybe that explains the rowdiness.
I’ve probably eaten 8 to 10 times at Kronenhalle and, memo to self, must make a point of adding another visit next time we are in Switzerland.
5 the Tamarind in Mombasa, Kenya (https://tamarind.co.ke). In 1982 we got the opportunity of a discounted holiday on the beach in Kenya. Clare was one at the time and had just started to walk so she was able to enjoy a first ‘active’ holiday whilst she gave me and Juni the challenges of keeping a newly mobile daughter safe. It was a two week holiday and we took the opportunity to make a quick excursion to Nairobi (overnight on the train and that’s another story) but the culinary highlight of our trip was the Tamarind. It’s said to have been established in the early 70s because ‘there were no quality restaurants in Mombasa’. Today they say the menu is a blend of the best of French, Asian and African cuisines. Sounds good to me.
Whereas Vlado’s does steak the Tamarind does seafood and all I remember is a chilli crab to die for. We were there for a mid-week lunch and ate at a table overlooking Tudor Creek. It was quiet so we got all the attentions which we needed, or to be more precise Clare did.
There are others I could add to the list. Just recently I rediscovered the Boat in Erbistock that I frequented in the mid 60s but it’s hardly iconic. Along side Rules we also went to Simpson’s in the Strand in London. That’s still there. In Indonesia I’d love to list the Oasis in Jakarta but it’s sadly closed and although Toko Oen in Malang survives it’s not really got the class to make this list. In Hong Kong I remember Gaddi’s and Chesa at the Peninsula and in Singapore there was Palm Court at Raffles. More recently of course and I start to miss the point of this post. It’s restaurants which I’ve experienced 40 years ago and which are still thriving.