A BEAUTIFUL DAY AT BENTLEY’S or WHY RESTAURANTS MATTER

Bentley’s was humming. Humming, not buzzing. The mood was too relaxed, too chilled, too civilised for buzzing. People – lots of people – were obviously pleased to be there, not in a shouty, let’s-get-smashed kind of way, but in a how-wonderful-to-see-you, isn’t-it-a-joy-to-be-out-and-about-again kind of way. The scene was a reminder of gracious pleasures and social values. Oh, and good food.

I’d gone to Bentley’s for oysters. As far as I’m concerned, Bentley’s is the Camelot of oysters, and the Native oyster is King Arthur.  Pacific oysters are all very well in their way, big and meaty, but they can’t match the subtlety,  sophistication and sheer sexiness of the Native. On this day in Bentley’s six natives came from Loch Ryan.  They were matched with six Pacific oysters from Carlingford. What a contrast.

Both had their virtues. It’s just that, for me, the Ryan Natives had rather more virtues that the Carlingford Pacifics. These were as louche as a 19th century courtesan; voluptuous, billowy, pillows of soft flesh that draped across the tongue and then slipped away leaving a sharp, salty tang just hanging around the tonsils. The Lock Ryan Natives atives were small (No 3s), lithe and compact, an ineffable, creamy sweetness and lingering fishiness distilled into each glossy, slippery, dense nugget. Oh my.  Sight, sound, smell, touch and taste in very mouthful. Is there any other human activity, with the possible exception of sex, that demands all our faculties?

A glass of suave Chablis. A second glass of Chablis. A hummock of  steak tartare with a blob of oyster emulsion (the umami heightens the flavour of the meat), a plate of chips, and lunch was done.. I should’ve had salad, but I was feeling so indulgent I foreswore the green stuff as too ascetic.

In former times Bentley’s was the place where pin-striped uncles would take their nephews and nieces for a treat. They’d be surrounded by other men in pin striped suits. They’d eat the same lunches or dinners – smoked salmon followed by Dover sole followed by Welsh rarebit washed down by a bottle of suave Chablis – and talk about the same things in the same tones. Old Bentley’s had all the inclusivity of a gentleman’s club, the definition of gastronomic fustian.

No more. The mighty hand of Richard Corrigan, chef/proprietor of Bentley’s for – what? sixteen years now – swept away all the plush pomposity, and eased it into the 21st Century without sacrificing its distinctive qualities. What struck me about my fellow launchers now was their diversity in terms of age, gender and background. Restaurants, even restaurants like Bentley’s that fly the flag for traditional values, aren’t the province of the sad old bores any more. They’re the common property of all peoples of all ages. Over time the mannerisms that proved such a barrier to so many curious connoisseurs have crumbled to dust and now restaurants of many different types have taken their proper place at the centre of out cultural and social lives.

I pondered over a glass of  elegantly aged armagnac.  It seemed to me that restaurants have taken on a symbolic significance over and above their worldly charms. We can’t go abroad (yet), but we can go to restaurants. We can only go to sporting events, weddings and funerals in dribs and drabs, but we can tuck into proper food along with many of our fellows.  Restaurants have become repositories of our aspirations and dreams, the carrot at the end of Lock Down, a spa for the spirit as my daughter Lois, put it, our reward for our forbearance and self-discipline, a measure that things really are getting better,  fluttering pennons of hope and optimism.

More, restaurants are, or should be, places where we all meet on the same level, epitomes of equality, with none of that soul smothering formality that used to be the distinguishing characteristic of high end eating.  They should be places where we feel comfortable and comforting, where we escape from humdrum realities, the crushing daily round. Not so much theatres of dreams as playgrounds of pleasure. 

But it’s  an odd business, you know,  eating out. Full of paradoxes.  Public and private, personal and communal, familiar and novel. Each time we enter, we go through the same ritual – greeted, seated; handed menus (or scan them via our smart phones); choose; eat, drink, talk; pay and go. It is a comfortable, comforting round. At the same time,  each visit is different – different friends, different food, different service, different experiences. We are both actors and audience.

I paid – £116.41 if you must know. Not cheap, but food of the highest quality and pleasure of the most genial kind never is, or ever should be, in my view. If things are cheap we tend not to value them, and I valued my lunch at Bentley’s very highly indeed. Besides, it’s a miracle that any restaurants have survived Covid and they need all the help they can get if they are going to continue be the sanctuaries of civility we flock to.

Warmed by a glass of Armagnac I continued to admire the purposeful pavane  of waiters, as formal and as elaborate as any performance at the Royal Opera House; soak up the found sound of surrounding conversations;  and bask in the animation all around. It was all enough to put a chap into the sunniest of humours.  

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