A review of one of London’s classic restaurants – and how it inspired my fiction.
‘One of my favourite restaurants in London is the Laughing Halibut,’ I say as we eat our lunch in Vienna. ‘When I first started eating there in 1979, it was run by this Italian guy, and one of his sons used to work there, a young bloke. Now, the son is still there, he seems to run the place, but he has become a much older man.’
’40 years is a long time, I guess,’ my friend says. ‘The Italian has aged. But you have stayed the same.’
‘Correct! It’s like that Joe Walsh song, Life’s been good to me so far. Great lyrics. It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame, he sings. Everybody’s so different, I haven’t changed. Best fish and chips in central London.’
A delicious portion of chips from the Laughing Halibut – RP
I often think of the Laughing Halibut, and would recommend it to anyone visiting or living in London. In fact, I like it so much that it features in a key scene in a novel of mine, which is on ice at present but might see the light of day in a couple of years. The scene also features a phlegmatic Italian waiter.
The scene (which I have lightly edited, for reasons too complex to explain here) is as follows. Angus Fairfax, the protagonist of the book, is meeting his wife Rosie for lunch.
Excerpt from an unpublished novel
Rosie and I had instituted regular Monday lunches when she was promoted – again – twelve months before. ‘You must be in the diary,’ she’d said. ‘Otherwise, I’ll never see you.’
She’d been right. These days, most of our conversations seemed to take place in the Laughing Halibut in Strutton Ground.
Strutton Ground was a curious street. Two minutes from New Scotland Yard and five from the Palace of Westminster, it felt as if it had been transplanted whole from the depths of the East End. In low-rise parades of shops, shoe discounters jostled with dodgy cafes. On week-days, hand-drawn barrows materialised on the cobbled carriageway, selling cheap batteries, wet fish, and miracle devices for cleaning both sides of window panes. At one end, sandwiched between a bookmaker’s and a charity shop, the Laughing Halibut sold the best fish and chips in central London.
I found Rosie sitting at a Formica-topped table reading the Financial Times. It seemed to take her ages to fold the paper away.
‘Have you ordered yet?’ I said.
‘No. I was waiting for you.’
‘I thought I was pretty on-time.’
One of the Italian waiters who’d been working in the Laughing Halibut since records began came to take our order. When I said I’d have the battered sausage and chips, ‘because I feel a bit like a battered sausage today’, Rosie didn’t smile. Nor did the waiter.
‘You can’t go through life avoiding all sources of fat.’ I grinned. ‘Anyhow, Ned was telling me about this tribe in the Amazon which eats nothing but battered sausage and chips. And they all live to be a hundred.’
‘Angus,’ Rosie said. That was all.
‘We can’t go on like this.’
I blinked. ‘How do you mean?’
‘I’m worried about you. Whatever happened to that thrusting young man I fell in love with in Paris?’
‘You never told me about him.’
Still Rosie did not smile. ‘You were full of energy in those days. What’s gone wrong?’
The waiter dropped two plates of chips and battered objects onto the table. Suddenly I didn’t feel hungry. Something extraordinary was happening.
‘Gone wrong? What do you mean?’
‘You haven’t been promoted for a decade.’ Rosie lowered her voice, as if the assembled crowd of office workers and taxi drivers could possibly overhear us above the din of the deep-fat friers, or would care if they could. ‘When you get a chance to show what you can do, it’s a disaster. Why didn’t you say anything at the meeting this morning?’
‘I hadn’t had a chance to prepare.’
‘Do you know what my boss said after today’s performance? She said, ‘Who on earth is that man?”
I shook my head. ‘It’s not really me, is it? It’s your bloody reputation you’re worried about. Well, sorry if I’m embarrassing you.’
‘That’s not fair.’ Rosie raised her hand as if to jab a finger at me, then lowered it. ‘OK, so nul points isn’t every woman’s dream. Oh, for heaven’s sake.’ She sat back and folded her arms. ‘I used to admire you, Angus. Now I’m not sure if I respect you. That’s all. And what kind of role model do you think you are for the children?’
A passing waiter examined our untouched plates.
‘Finished?’ he said.
‘Not yet, thanks.’ Rosie popped a chip in her mouth and smiled up at him as though this were a lunch like any other.
‘I don’t see why you’re dragging the kids into this,’ I said. ‘Anyhow, I’m a brilliant role model. How many dads take three years off work so their wife can pursue her glittering international career in Moscow? Don’t forget all the times I was wrestling with a double-buggy in the slush on the ring-road while you were drinking Champagne at the Kremlin. No wonder my career tanked.’
‘Don’t start on about your so-called sacrifice. It was you who wanted to take time off to get to know the children better, and learn Russian. Remember?’
I said nothing. It was all true.
Rosie leaned forward and took off her glasses. She always looked immaculate at work; but her eyes were bloodshot. ‘Angus. I know what you’re capable of. I just wish you’d take control of your life. Do something extraordinary. Do your job. Will you try that for me? Please?’
‘Or else what? What did you mean, we can’t go on like this? Are you talking about the family? Our future?’
‘All I want is a man I can take seriously.’
‘Thanks very much.’ Inside the batter, my sausage was bright pink.
‘I’m sorry. But sometimes it’s better to get these things out in the open.’
‘No,’ Rosie said. ‘I’m quite sure it is.’
I hope you enjoyed the excerpt. I would welcome your comments, either on the writing or on the restaurant.
The Laughing Halibut is at 38 Strutton Ground, Westminster, London SW1P 2HR. If I were reviewing it I’d give it a straight 10/10.