Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Hey, What's Cool?

Things go in and out of fashion so quickly, it’s increasingly hard to keep up and sometimes, you don’t want to have to keep up. You just want to have a good time. Choosing a restaurant becomes difficult if you're concerned about fashion. I mean, some might say who would be seen dead at a chain like Strada, while Pizza Express remains strangely OK?

Quite often restaurants invest so heavily in fickle changes in menu, interiors and booking policies that pandering to fashions, they lose track of what they stand for. And that’s good service and good food, when it comes down to it!

A good example is the 'fusion' food trend of 10-15 years ago. How many 'fusion' (or rather 'confusion') pan-asian, pacific rim, Thai-infused concotions failed, and quietly slipped away un-noticed in the noughties? I say slipped away, they might have also made their way to provincial towns and still enjoy out-of-towner trade, (like the Guildford married couple treating themselves to a monthly night out).

It could be simply because the veneered hardwood, frosted glass walls and square plates of 10 years ago has given way to tin cans, taxidermy and desk lamps in 2012.

But personally I have a sneaky suspicion that these places didn't just sit there and build on what they had. They tried to adapt and change, frequently updating and redesigning according to which size of slate they should serve on that week, but essentially ending up in a confusing dithering state of disarray, arguments about direction and product culminating an another bland mish-mash of current trends.

If you're trying to impress a date, or suggest a venue that won't scare away the cooler people in your gang, what we are frequently left with when thinking about going to eat, is a selection of recently opened, hip, ‘very now’ places, which are inevitably difficult to get into. Is it me or do places simply stay cool for a shorter time now?

I was recently invited to join a friend at what he called his favourite 'unfashionable' restaurant in London - the Bloomsbury old favourite Ciao Bella. I say favourite, it could now be his second favourite, as apparently Jay Rayner has personally advised him to try Oslo Court in St Johns Wood, which he hasn't told me about yet. My friend is a bit of a name-dropper.

Set in Lamb's Conduit St, a back street of Bloomsbury, this neighbourhood restaurant has been serving bog standard Italian fare for 30 years, and appear not to have needed an upgrade in either menu or decor in that time either, being adorned with film posters, white tiles, wicker chairs, the whole Mediterranean seaside feel.

The point of Ciao Bella is they don't give a crap what's in fashion.

Nor it seems do its hoards of regulars, as it wasn’t that easy to secure a booking - we had to settle for a table at 9.30. A chilly Tuesday and the place was packed – clearly the rest of London knew that Ciao Bella were onto something.

A pianist tinkled away in the corner and at least three different waiters looked after us. We were flanked by an elderly local couple to the left who knew the manager by name, and a young student couple to the right, holding hands.

I felt comfortable enough to ask what pizza the guy next to us had, it was that kind of atmosphere. Jokes were being told.

After weeks of Soho's ox cheeks, slaw, smoked eel, beef brisket, onglet and somethingelselet, how pleased was I to see 'avocado prawns' on the menu? Oh yes, welcome back to the 70s! Then, a Fiorentina pizza, with perfectly fresh dough and deep, sharp tomato sauce, and my dining companion had a rack of lamb, which was 'perfectly acceptable, if a little over seasoned'. Our accompanying Montepulciano went well. We were having fun so the waiters got a decent tip. I got the feeling that these pleasant, efficient waiters often got good tips.

From entering the restaurant, I kind of felt like I was in a bit of a timewarp, but in a good way. This is what I’ve been looking for – no ridiculous food trends, no exposed lightbulbs and ‘quirky’ ways of serving. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great trendy restaurants around at the moment but how long will they last? Sometimes somewhere unfashionable is the only place that can cut it. ‘Do I tweet about it?’, I debated in my head. Heaven forbid if my cool friends find out. When I told him this, my friend likened it to riding a scooter: 'Great fun, but you wouldn’t tell your mates'.

Ciao Bella will be here for many years. On reflection, it's places like this that transcend fashion because they do not care whether they are 'in' or 'out'. And as Ben Stiller says in Starsky & Hutch - that's what's really cool.

Cost: £47 for 2, with wine.


  1. This sounds like my kind of place. I'd be proud to own something like it!

  2. Bravo - love Ciao Bella. Always welcoming when we rock up for lunch. Good times.



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