Why go local? The beauty of a neighbourhood restaurant
Published 10 May 2023

Credit: The Catch, Plymouth, Devon

A former editor of the Good Food Guide once defined everybody's favourite restaurant as 'the one where they know you'. To walk in and be greeted by name, before anybody has glanced at the on-screen booking data, is to be reminded of the restaurant's primeval role of restoring the spirits, a task equally as important as feeding and sustaining the body. Come in, how are you? Awful weather. Did you have trouble parking? Let me take your coats. Stuart Walton has eaten in an extraordinary range of restaurants - he explains why he couldn’t agree more.

It seems a fair bet that most people's prized local restaurant will not be the marble-lobbied hotel into which the frogged doorman admits you, where the moneyed of five continents come and go among jardinières the size of grain silos, the dining-room is heavy with the traffic of temptation trolleys, and dinner will proceed through fifteen tiny courses while grinding to fourteen sizeable halts. You might eat the greatest food of your life there, but does it inspire affection and warmth and – true test – the ardent, inextinguishable wish to return?

Economics naturally play a large part in our discriminations. The favourite local has to be, at least intermittently, affordable. It may be somewhere that we trust to host our rites of passage: milestone birthdays, landmark anniversaries, first dates and final affiancings. It is also, however – and crucially, I think – somewhere that will be as glad to see us (as we are to see it) on a dank Wednesday night in February, when the heart revolts at another evening at home of simmering tomatoes and boiling pasta. What's needed, or rather what's wanted, is an indefensible splash on three courses with side-dishes, a better bottle than the high-street branch of Booze Bucket can muster, a front-of-house manager who knows you. Come in. Awful weather. Awful world. Can I get you a drink?

These are the primary functions of what the trade papers call the 'hospitality industry', and they take place in settings that don't, with any luck, bear the slightest trace of being part of an industry. This is why most people still want waiting staff to be friendly, even given their shoddy pay and the organised racket of the gratuity system. Eating out is nothing if not a social event, not a social event in the sense of your cousin's wedding, but an event that takes place in something like human society. Electronic order-pads and the smileless android approach are not what we are about here. Save that for the office lunch-break.

The local gem, as we think of it on the Guide, is somewhere that might inspire conversation, not just with the waiters but with the neighbouring table. Or if not conversation, at least a nod and a 'Good evening', offered without any fear that the neighbours will think you deranged. I once windmilled a warning gesture to an elderly English couple at a hotel on Venice's Grand Canal, to warn them that the tiramisu on the trolley was rancid. The wife, whose eye I caught, looked away with an intake of breath. Having plumped for it, they gave every impression of defiantly enjoying the tiramisu.

the catch plymouth
Credit: The Catch

I have been working one day a week at Plymouth University this year, eating out on those dank Wednesday nights. On Southside Street in the city's Barbican quarter, a cocktail olive's throw from the Blackfriars gin distillery, is The Catch. It's the size of a modestly capacious garden shed, with a small handful of tables and window-ledge seating down the side. There is a printed menu with plenty of unchanging options, and the main courses turn on one chalkboard special of the day, 'the catch'. It could be a corpulent tranche of hake on garlicky haricots, or a whole floured and fried lemon sole, topped with a straggle of slender samphire, white crabmeat and chilli. I almost don't care what it is. I'll love it whatever. I prop up my book, I shepherd a wobbling-big glass of Petit Chablis to my lips. There is nothing to see. I look out on the numbered mailboxes of the apartment-block above. I could watch the one chef cooking in the back kitchen, but I don't like to stare.

I don't say this is my favourite place, now or ever. I stopped having favourites when I turned nine. Its appeal rests solely on the fact that it will feed me tenderly with food I want to eat, all the way to a wedge of chocolate and salt caramel torte with blood-orange sorbet, without making me feel friendless and sinister for eating alone. I always sit at the end of the window-ledge just in front of the service counter. I could be wrong, but I think they are just beginning to recognise me.

- Stuart Walton

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