Remember that time when...
Published 11 February 2020

Restaurants aren’t just about food; we often treasure them for the memorable experiences we had there. Here, six food writers recall the moments they’ll never forget

Amber Dalton, Good Food Guide Editor

It was March 2002, and my two best pals took me out for the evening to celebrate my 28th birthday. After cocktails at the latest hangout in Clerkenwell, London, they led me to St John. It was a restaurant I’d never visited but whose number I had on speed dial in the late 1990s for a boss who liked to entertain clients over roast bone marrow or chitterlings in a bun. While I offered up stories of single life – the good, the bad and the downright comical – I sensed my friends’ relief at having joined the ranks of the happily coupled-up. Three fabulous courses and a good deal of wine later, Emily was on the phone to her little brother, Matthew, hoping to share a cab ride home. Fortified by alcohol, I grabbed her mobile and explained to Matthew that it was my birthday and I was expecting a kiss. Strangely unfazed by my bold request, he arrived to collect his sister and obliged. Eighteen months later, our paths crossed again at Emily’s wedding, but this time I didn’t let him get away. We marked our first wedding anniversary in 2007 at – where else? – St John. stjohnrestaurant.com

Tim Hayward, food writer

J Sheekey’s Atlantic Bar in London can be one of the most magical spots for a romantic evening and I’d chosen it for an important date. It would not be too much of an exaggeration, however, to say that everything that night went pear-shaped. They messed up the order, twice, then the waiter accidentally poured half a bottle of wine down my companion’s neck. What was exceptional, though, was that they handled it all with such aplomb. Courses were taken off the bill. A card appeared with the address of a high-class dry-cleaner and an assurance that there would be no charge for its services. As we left, already quite happy with the way we’d been treated, the maitre d’ (the brilliant, sadly departed
John Andrews) chased us down the road and gave us a bottle of champagne.
This story proves an old adage: a happy customer will tell a few friends, an unhappy customer will tell a few more. However, if you’ve messed up with a customer – and then made up for it beyond all expectations – they will remember everything and tell everyone… forever. Because this all happened long before I was a restaurant critic – I was just an ordinary, nervous customer – and yet I’m still telling the story, to thousands of you, 20 years later. j-sheekey.co.uk

Gill Meller, chef and cookery teacher at River Cottage

I never planned to be a chef – but my experiences at the Three Horseshoes Inn in Powerstock, Dorset, changed everything. This quaint, cosy village pub was where, aged 14, I got my first job. My daily chores involved scrubbing the pots and scraping the plates (plus the occasional piece of cutlery) down the ‘gurgler’ before rushing them through the tired old dishwasher. In between all that, I had to rinse spinach, peel garlic and chop parsley, as well as fetch varieties of fish I could rarely identify from the big fridge across the car park. For this, I was paid £1 per hour. One evening I was at home, recuperating after a busy shift, when I received a phone call from Pat, the chef patron. “Where’s my fish stock?” he asked calmly. “What fish stock?” I replied, less calmly. “The fish stock I poached the last wild sea bass in. I’m going to make some lovely soup from it. I left it by the sink to be decanted and refrigerated,” he said. “Oh, that fish stock,” I replied weakly. I had mistaken Pat’s exquisite infusion for a pan of dirty dishwater and tipped the whole lot down the sink. His reaction? “Don’t come back!” Fortunately, he calmed down and I did go back. Working for Pat taught me so much about good food – and the fish-stock experience showed me that sometimes the best things in life are right under your nose. I’ve been back to the Horseshoes to eat countless times over the years; it’s a wonderful place to roll up after a long wintry walk. The beer’s great – and the fish soup is marvellous. threeshoesdorset.co.uk

Felicity Cloake, food writer

While cycling the Hebridean Way in September 2018, I was looking forward to visiting the Am Politician pub and restaurant on Eriskay. This was not only because of its link to that epic smuggling caper Whisky Galore, but also because, let’s be frank, when you find yourself in a remote corner of Europe, you take your refuelling opportunities where you can. Even if it’s a Sunday morning, you’ve just pedalled off the ferry and you still feel a bit queasy. We walked in – two women, one British, one French, both in full Lycra – to find the place packed to the rafters, completely silent, and everyone staring at us open-mouthed. It turned out we’d walked straight into a viewing of the big Celtic-Rangers derby and interrupted a Celtic goal. In the circumstances, it seemed wise to take our orange squashes outside to the seashore and wait until official opening time so we could tuck into huge, plump scallops and crab and chips to the deafening roar of a Celtic victory. I think they forgave us. facebook.com/ampolitician1

Marina O’Loughlin, restaurant critic

I have long been a fan of Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip, for its groundbreaking approach to locality – when it opened, the idea of Scottish cuisine was seen as mildly comical – and the raw handsomeness of its premises, softened over the years by Alasdair Gray’s beautiful, idiosyncratic murals. I was delighted to get a job there years ago, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and completely inexperienced, back at a time when being vaguely decorative was considered more important than an impressive CV. I learned the menu (haggis and fine Scottish beef); I floated around pretty helpfully, I reckoned. But nobody thought to tell me that accepting tequila sunrise after tequila sunrise (it was the times, I’m afraid) from a table of ebullient diners wasn’t part of the deal, nor were the management convinced that my subsequent cheery inebriation was nearly as charming as I thought it was. They sacked me. Fast forward a couple of decades and my son also scored a job as a waiter at the Chip, to my astonishment. I’m not sure how, because he had even less experience than I did. After a week, he called me, downcast: “They sacked me, Mum.” That’s my boy, I beamed, that’s my boy. I don’t hold any of this against them: I’m still a fan. Long may this landmark restaurant continue to say “you’re fired” to future generations of O’Loughlins. ubiquitouschip.co.uk

Xanthe Clay, food writer

It was Christmas 1996, and I had just given birth to my first child. With impeccable timing, my late father, always a stupendously generous host, had invited his three daughters and their families to stay at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire on Boxing Day. “Should you go?” my relatives wondered out loud. You bet. A three-day-old baby and a light covering of snow were not going to get between me and dinner at one of the finest restaurants in the country, the legendary home of chef Raymond Blanc. Without stopping to think about it, we threw the Moses basket in the boot, bundled baby Hector in blankets and headed up the M4. It was a family gathering like no other. One set of young cousins flooded the bathroom when they discovered that the bidet nozzle could be trained to shoot water at the ceiling. Another of the crew, given a cup of gorgeously dark, intense chocolat chaud, announced to the renowned dining room at the top of her four-year-old voice, “They make disgusting food here.” What I remember best, though, is after discreetly breastfeeding my tiny tot at dinner (Le Manoir is exquisitely family-friendly), I was attempting to eat my duck with cinnamon and cherries with one hand, clasping Hector to my shoulder with the other. A young French waiter appeared and murmured, “Madame, I would be so honoured if you would let me hold your adorable bébé.”
And so he did, proudly parading my son around the dining room, while I ate my first proper meal in days. belmond.com/lemanoir

Published February 2020