Our London in five meals
There is a scene in one of Dilbert’s animated cartoon episodes: Dilbert finally meets his father. He’s in an all-you-can-eat restaurant in a mall. He’s not coming home. “Tell Ma,” he says as he leaves their booth for the restroom, “I haven’t yet eaten all I could eat.”
I stopped paying attention to Dilbert long ago, and I stopped believing in the old “tired-of-London-tired-of-life” platitudes. But maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons why I keep getting sentimental about this monstrous city is that the food is also just monstrously good. You feel the same way, I know; we’ve each got our favourites. Fortunately you can still agree with me on a few of them.
It would be easy for our list to grow beyond five meals, and beyond any usefulness. We would just keep listing the good times until we got hungry. But you and I, we’ve got history with this town. Written down in routes, places we found, places we moved out from, people we lived with. And, hell yes — food we shared.
1. The Begging Bowl
Peckham was 95% mistake and 5% redemption. The Begging Bowl was the latter.
There was one regular salary, one tiny room, too many housemates, too many cats in the house (yes, I said it), too much noise. Near the time we were about to leave — to a bigger, nicer, more normal arrangement — one of the slats in the bed cracked under our weight. Symbolic, I thought, grateful that it’s the inanimate objects that couldn’t take it any more.
Payday felt good — or any day, really, that we cared for leaving the house and walking the streets. The pubs, the parks, the space felt good. And right in the middle of one of our favourite streets, there is was, one day: a place with no reservations, plenty of light and Thai food that warmed us up.
It made me realise that tofu doesn’t need to be boring if you treat it right. It made you come back again and again, and order the same spicy galangal-based soup until they took it off the menu. It made strangers and friends brushing elbows with us at the long tables more bearable.
Looking back, I see now how fragile and thoroughly crappy that whole time was, how close we were to just snapping like a piece of wood under too much pressure. Perhaps what made us survive the Peckham period were just a few things we are only beginning to be grateful for right now, after all these years. A few books, a few conversations, a few day trips, a few meals.
The Begging Bowl doesn’t serve your soup any more, but I’m sure they helped you make it through.
2. Hawksmoor breakfast
We woke early and took the Tube. It was my day off; it was my birthday. Your treat, your scheme.
We’ve been doing this to each other for a while now. Maybe it’s because there’s not much need for new stuff. Maybe it’s the question of space — books outnumber any other object in our house 20:1, and more keep coming. Whatever. The point is: birthdays are for experiences. Like sailing in the middle of London, or a perfume-making class, or a picnic in a place we never knew existed.
If I manage to go vegetarian next year, it’s because this meal took me super-close to blowing by lifetime meat limit. And before I say goodbye to meat, a repeat of this breakfast is definitely on the cards.
It’s full English for people who have a strange idea of what full means. It’s fat, flavor, bone marrow, bacon, and more. It’s a huge cellar-vault space with opulent furniture, discreet lighting, no music, and rich bastards having their first Bloody Mary of the day.
We tried taking a walk after eating all that, and it was hard work. If I do this again — and I will — the purpose will be to remind myself of the feeling of having eaten this: the feeling of too-muchness, of excess, of taking a bone and sucking it dry.
3. Toffs fish and chips
There is an Iron Maiden golden record on the wall. The drummer is a huge fan of this place. Legend has it, he paid for the staff to pack themselves and their gear into a private jet and fly over to the U.S. where the band was recording, to fry proper fish and chips for everyone. If you’re into rock music, it gets better: the Kinks played their first gig in this neighbourhood, and UFO were founded even closer to where we now live.
The street is just about as local as it gets for us. You can see the rest of London, hazy and pretty and harmless from the distance, in snapshots of vista as you walk down the main street and look south. There is a bookshop and a cinema and charity clothes shops stocked by people with relatable silhouettes and very good taste.
And there’s Toffs. The portions are large and coma-inducing in their freshness and richness. There’s plenty of choice, and Greek lager to drink it down. It’s next door to a fishmonger (good sign). It’s always full (good sign). All this, and the hard rock references, and the most iconically British of meals: yes, we thought, tourists around Leicester Square pay through their nose to get nowhere near what we just ate.
Despite all that, we’ve only ever been once. And thoroughly enjoyed it, for sure. But I think that was it. Maybe we were satisfied: yes, this place ticks all the boxes. Yes, this is good. Like a pebble from your beach holiday that you bring back and never touch again, it’s just good to know that it’s there.
4. Volare pizza
The house was full of boxes and bubble wrap, all three floors of it. Four people were moving out. We were two of them.
London does things to you. One of the things it does, unless you’re very lucky or suitably rich or an adept dater, is this: it makes you live with others. Sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes a bad thing. But when it’s time for people to move in or out, it’s always a stressful thing.
This was one of these days. Me and you, we were just going to move two streets down, on our own at last (!). V and E, our two housemates, found something somewhere else, and were leaving, too. Our house — the basecamp for many years — suddenly felt dusty and agitated, as if it was going to make a scene on hearing the news of us moving.
You slipped on the stairs and did things to your ankle. I walked up and down the stairs to the old and new flat, with the mover, and heavier things than I care to mention. E was waiting for the rental agency to get over the fact that in 2017, people in London don’t necessarily always have just one job, and that freelance employment is also an option. Everyone cursed a lot, and cried a little. Everyone was very nice to each other but just wanted it over and done with.
V appeared in the middle of it all with more cardboard boxes. One of them contained the pizza. She told us where she got it from — that pizzeria by the noisy, busy circular road nearby, which we never thought to visit.
Two slices later, everybody’s minds were at ease. In the middle of the dusty, half-empty house that was about to lose its home status, the team came together again to wonder at the Volare miracle.
Our move two streets down was completed. We ordered another pizza, and sat at our brand new table. “Now I’m kind of glad we didn’t move further out,” you said.
5. Nigella’s roast chicken
This one involves roasting your own meat. It also involves using lots of salt and oil and lemon. And it involves making the whole house smell like good food is happening.
We spoke about perfumes the other day. You agreed with someone who said that smells sometimes help you communicate more clearly than language. I wasn’t sure, but this much I knew: smells are spaces I live in, spells you cast around you.
In a city which won’t let us rest and relax, smells bring peace and quiet.
In a place where two good jobs are still not enough to buy, smells change rental apartments into Our Homes.
And on a Sunday which sometimes look like all rain and wind and grimy London grayness, smells can turn a kitchen into a feel-good command centre — coffee in the morning, your bread in the evening, and the chicken and lemon in the meantime.
I know this one by heart, and it’s dead simple. I may end up being vegetarian, but if you won’t, I won’t mind cooking it for you.
My Patronus is a roast chicken.