Eating Out

Anyone for Woolton pie?

Enduring a taste of the Blitz spirit at a chain restaurant with no butter, no jam and few staff

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Many superior writers have chronicled the long crushing of illusions which marks the progress from innocence to experience, but none (to my knowledge), have discussed the appalling revelation that some people don’t brush their teeth before breakfasting. In public. Really.

I’d always had a bit of a thing about the unwarranted intimacy of hotel breakfast rooms; all those creased faces and ill-disguised adulterous hangovers looming at one over the buffet. But I learned only recently that my revulsion at the frowsty, halitotic miasma which inevitably hovers over the toast station of mid-range hotels is due to some antiquated dental advice that you should brush after your branflakes.

I don’t want to see you eating branflakes, or indeed to think about why you’re eating them, not with the evidence of the state of your intestines being blasted all over me. Thus it was with great relief that I learned that the place where I was staying during a recent research trip used a branch of Côte as its breakfast room. I could take my coffee on the pavement in splendid isolation and pretend I was in Paris.

Sloane Square is also excellent for people-watching: harassed hedge fund dads dragging preposterously prep-school uniformed children to their classes; Chelsea matrons clucking into Peter Jones; impossibly-gleaming Pilates-goers in cashmere sweats. The waiter who brought my latte looked as though he hadn’t slept for a week, but that only added to the Gallic authenticity.

He was probably a poet or a jazz musician, not so fresh from an all-night dive. I ordered an orange juice and some toast. The waiter explained politely that I could certainly have the toast, but that there was no butter or marmalade. Jam? “No jam. Supply chain. Sorry.”

I like Côte. Yes, it’s a chain and yes, the food is predictable. But the dearth of plucky independent neighbourhood restaurants means predictable chains are what many people are stuck with, and Cote’s middle-of-the-road take on French brasserie classics is consistently dependable and pleasing.

Chains are an interesting gauge of trends and moods and Côte’s summer specials were certainly making an effort: a luxey lobster and chips with lemon hollandaise; Charentais melon with Bayonne ham; a goat cheese cream and Breton tomato salad which claimed to be from the hand of “Camille”, Côte’s second-generation tomato grower across the Channel.

The prices are more than reasonable, with mains about £15, no side over a fiver and a decent selection of vegan and vegetarian options including squash taboulleh and a fricassee of celeriac. Absolutely nothing wrong with an onion soup and a jolly steak frites; I thought it would be telling, if not interesting, to return for dinner.

So that evening I saw the waiter again, still working after what was by that time a 13-hour shift. The restaurant was lively with tourists and after-work types. I waited half an hour at the same uncleared table while he signed somnambulistic apologies. The steak was off, as was the soup, so I went for a tomato and caper salad and the Breton fish stew. Butter had materialized, which was disproportionately pleasing; fresh, chewy baguette and a glass of Pinot Noir were fine to pass the time.

When the waiter eventually came to remove the full dishes, he had the grace not to ask if everything had been all right

At least for the first hour. When the tomatoes turned up they were pallid, flavourless and starchy, but nothing like as grim as the stew — a watery soup which had been used to reconstitute a Frozen Seafood Selection, with one slice of cottony, unidentifiable white fish bobbing disconsolately in the murk. If I was Michel Houellebecq I’d say it looked like an abandoned life raft in a harrowing short about the refugee crisis. The stew’s base was supposedly wine and chilli, neither of which flavours were detectable. It didn’t even have the guts to be bad, it was just pointless.

When the waiter eventually came to remove the full dishes, he had the grace not to ask if everything had been all right. I asked him instead and the poor chap practically burst into tears. He indicated his colleague, a lady I also recognised from the breakfast shift. “She hasn’t had a day off in three weeks.” No staff, he explained, and the few workers available unable to make their commute in time for their shifts. He said he had slept in the stock room last night as it was the only way to get to work on time. At least there was space, as he claimed the restaurant had no stock — “we order it, but it doesn’t come”.

Côte isn’t trying to be cutting-edge so much as reliable and reassuring; providing the kind of “nice meal” that was until recently such a positive feature of the British High Street.

No one seems to be really talking about the challenges such businesses are facing

Yet no one seems to be really talking about the challenges such businesses are facing, or the cause of them, in the same way that the half-empty shelves in Boots and Pret and Marks & Spencer are apparently no longer worthy of comment.

There’s more than a flavour of Blitz spirit at large when one is expected to be thrilled that a restaurant can provide butter. Someone wanted this nonetheless, even if it means that the poor waiter might soon be reduced to boiling up the elephant in the room.

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