In 1970 my then boyfriend advertised a room in his Holloway flat in Time Out and ended up letting it to John Leaver, TO’s ad manager. John thought I was just the sort of person who should work at Time Out and arranged for me to meet Tony. He was gorgeous; slim in tight Levis and flowered shirt with long, glossy, dark hair, an amused quizzical look and warm, friendly manner. There were no editorial openings he said but they needed a receptionist for the new offices in run-down Kings Cross, would I do that until something came up?
Tony devised Sell Out for his girlfriend Stephanie Hughes soon after TO went weekly and moved to Grays Inn Road. I was soon working part time for Steph, tramping the streets of London searching out interesting shops and bargains, instigating a jumble sale listing. When Steph went to live in New York, I eventually took over and expanded the section, writing a weekly feature on an aspect of living in London that wasn’t related to the arts and entertainment. At the time, it was the start of Camden Lock and one-off shops like Swanky Modes (run by a group of friends that included Esme Young, then just out of art school, now judge on The Great British Sewing Bee). London’s ‘villages’ reflected the people who lived and worked there far more than they do now. Covent Garden, for example, had theatrical costumiers, ballet and tap shoe shops and musical instrument repairers, while Smithfield, that almost exclusively revolved around the meat market, had shops that sold butchers string and aprons and chef’s knives. Soho was still seedy, with shady sex shops and a handful of Italian delis like Camisa while on the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue, Chinatown thrived. The King’s Road was a hooray Henry hang out, home of smart boutiques like Mary Quant and R Soles for cowboy boots. Kensington High was famous for its old-fashioned department stores – Derry and Toms and Barkers until Barbara Hulanicki started Biba. Terence Conran had introduced the chicken brick, coloured bed linen and sleek home furnishings but Kensington Market (where Big O Posters had a presence and where I worked alongside Harvey Goldsmith, Peter Ledeboer’s original partner in the business ) and Portobello Road were Time Out stomping grounds.
In those early days the only food coverage in TO was as a tempter to the handful of restaurants that advertised in the small ads; take an ad and we guaranteed a review in return for a free meal. It was a perk which I co-ordinated, dishing out freebie meals in return for a review but when Richard Williams became editor, he asked me to take the restaurant column under my wing and do it properly.
In the mid-to-late seventies, London’s restaurant scene was beginning to wake up. Wimpy bars gave way to burger bars like Parsons on the Fulham Road but most famously, the Hard Rock Café. American Bob Payton popularized what became the pizza phenomenon (Chicago Pizza Pie Factory) hard on the heels of Peter Boizot and his Pizza Express. Most interesting to us, though, was the so-called ethnic food scene; Greek kebab houses in Camden and Thai, Vietnamese and Tunisian cafes, often a greasy spoon in the day then restaurant at night, located away from the centre of town. Bhel Poori houses and other Indian vegetarian places were cheap and popular and destination restaurants. Bistros, a sixties phenomenon that lingered, gradually changed their nomenclature to brasserie then Cafe, with places like the Brompton Brasserie and Langan’s Brasserie theoretically open all day for breakfast, lunch, a drink and dinner. The big hotels were still the place where the important chefs worked, most notably Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester and French cooking was still regarded as the most important. Gradually things were changing, with bright young British chefs like Alastair Little, Rowley Leigh and Simon Hopkinson coming onto the scene, the River Café (Ruthie Rogers and Rose Gray: ex TO food editor) opening. Joe Allen came to Covent Garden and Cranks was at last not the only vegetarian place apart from Indian the Indian vegetarian places in Drummond Street.
By the early eighties a good restaurant review in TO filled a restaurant not only putting the place on the map but sending other restaurant reviewers in our wake. Riva, Adam’s Café, Sally Clarke, Smiths, Red Fort and countless Thai and Vietnamese cafes are a few names that spring to mind. A new breed of restaurant PR schmoozed us restaurant critics but we paid our way and always reviewed incognito. The success of the column, led to the TO restaurant guides and eventually, long after I’d left, to the TO Restaurant Awards.
For the final, final issue of Time Out, a look at 54 years of London Life, I was asked to write about my memories of being Time Out’s restaurant critic in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s an expansion of what I’ve already written here, but here’s my copy which was cut (uncharacteristic of my TO days) which friends who read it urged me to print. So here we go down memory lane.
A LOOK BACK AT WRITING THE RESTAURANT COLUMN
When I joined Time Out in the early seventies, the restaurant coverage was minimal and tied to advertising; if a place advertised we offered a review in exchange for a free meal. I dished out the freebies to staff until a new editor – Richard Williams – asked me to run the section properly, doing the reviews anonymously with an expense account.
We were north London centric in those days, regulars at informal kebab houses in Camden Town and occasional section head outings at bistro Le Routier by the canal and Dingwalls. We earned peanuts, so eating out had to be cheap and TO restaurant eating out coverage reflected our wallets. So-called ethnic restaurants offered the best value. Chinatown was a mystery in those days and my guide was Singaporean Eddie Lim (of Szechuan Paper Tiger in South Ken) and Paul Gambaccini, a Chinese food addict. Many places like Canton were open 24 hours, fast, functional and cheap. I learned the secrets of crab with ginger and spring onion, barbecued pork (char sui) and roast duck (char gnap), the meat chopped through the bone with a cleaver (the Chinese suck the bones), the combination of crisp skin, fat and pink meat flavoured by a pungent, five-spice marinade highly prized. 400-seater Cheun Cheng Ku was good for dim sum and Cantonese Mayflower on Shaftesbury Ave with 3.30am opening hours good for a late night meal with booze (served like cha in teapots).
I discovered bhel poori, became addicted to marsala dosai, the crisp, wafer-thin ground rice pancakes swollen with lentils, potato, fenugreek, ghee and curry leaves, served with chutneys and sambar. These South Indian vegetarian places dotted mainly throughout north London – Vijay, Sabras, Hari Krishna Curry House off Tottenham Court Road, Jai Krishna, Diwana and Baba Bhel Pooi House – were informal, cheap and fun. Other vegetarian places were few and far between, famously Cranks but we loved takeaway Food For Thought in Covent Garden dishing up freshly made big salads and stir fries.
We discovered gems like working man’s Quality Chop House when Smithfield was famous for its meat market and pubs open at breakfast time. We loved Mon Plaisir for bistro classics in Covent Garden and lovely inexpensive stodge at Polish Daquise, handy for the museums in South Ken. Other long-gone favourites included Costa’s Fish Restaurant for pre and post movie meals at the Gate, posh steak and chips at Rowley’s in gentleman’s outfitter land and Manzi’s in Leicester Square for old fashioned Italian fish dishes. Cheap and cheerful cafes like Jimmy’s and Bar Italia in Soho were better value than the burger bars taking London by storm. I was a regular at The Pot in Earls Court and The Stockpot in Canton Street and Kings Road was very popular. Charlotte Street was a favourite hangout: Greek Anemos, Bertorellis and Schmidts, with its rude Nazi waiters and Frau with a heavy moustache who ran the check out and deli for smoked salmon and cheesecake. Proper American burgers in sesame-flecked buns saw off Wimpy bars, rivalling our fast food passion for Italian pizza.
London’s eating out revival shifted up a gear in the eighties. We began a love affair with Thai food, particularly satay and green chicken curry. Hotels like the Dorchester and Savoy were where you went for posh tucker but a gaggle of young British chefs and restaurateurs inspired by food writers Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson appeared on the scene with what became known as Modern British cooking. Suddenly eating out was a past time and we talked chef names. One such, Alastair Little, cooked at the Zanzibar (club) that morphed into the Groucho. Later he moved to Groucho-child 192 before opening his own place while Simon Hopkinson was making a name for himself at Hilaire, later poached by Terence Conran to head the kitchen of Bibendum. Bistros and brasseries like South Ken neighbour La Brasserie and glamorous Langan’s Brasserie were booming. Cocktails became de rigeur at places like Soho Brasserie and newly launched old-timer L’Escargot (managed by Nick Smallwood who later, with Simon Slater, opened Kensington Place. Bob Payton challenged Peter Boizot’s Pizza Express group (recently expanded with club-style Kettners) introducing deep-pan, Chicago-style pizzas, later ribs with an amazing onion loaf at the Chicago Rib Shack setting a mini trend for buffet salad load-your-plate accompaniments. Rose Gray (TO kids editor in the 70’s) and Ruthie Rogers transformed a factory next door to husband Richard’s architectural practice as a works canteen. The River Café transformed the face of Italian food in London.
In the eighties, I introduced a column where I quizzed a favourite chef or restaurateur over lunch at a place of their choice on their favourite restaurants. Alastair Little chose Ajimura, a modern sushi bar on the fringe of Covent Garden and Simon Hopkinson chose Le Suquet, one of a small chain of brilliant south of France fish restaurants. Both places, now closed, became hits with TO readers.
When I left Time Out in the late eighties, nouvelle cuisine was on the wane and London was ready for another restaurant transformation. In 1992 the licensing laws changed and Michael Belben and David Eyre who ran a bistro on the cusp of Covent Garden transformed a dreary Clerkenwell pub. The Eagle became known as the first gastropub and a string of now familiar chefs including Margot Henderson and Tom Norrington Davis worked there. David’s famous steak sandwich is still on the menu and Michael is still the boss.
DISHES OF THE DECADES
Peter Boizot changed the face of high street eating in the mid-sixties with Pizza Express in Wardour Street. His thin, crisp well-loaded pizzas remain cheap and consistently good. Distinctive minimalist décor by Enzo Apicella with jazz.
Burgers and salads with thousand island dressing plus free second helpings of spag bol at trendy Parsons Old Spaghetti Factory on the Fulham Road. Burgers took over; Joe Allen called them chopped steak, queues then and now at Hard Rock Café.
Satay and Thai Green curry at an explosion of family-run Thai cafes and restaurants with indigenous names Bangkok, Sabai Sabai, Blue Elephant and Busabong. Exotic, fiery, inexpensive informal sharing food with rice.