Tom Cruise, if you’re reading this, I have a confession to make. Do you remember the night you dined at 192 during that summer when you were living in London and filming Mission Impossible? You ordered a light dinner of seared breast of chicken, sugar snap peas and new potatoes. Your party was drinking a late ’80s Pomerol while you sensibly sipped an elderflower spritzer.
However, as you ignored the dull movie- biz talk, gossiping instead with Nicole – on her mobile at the Cannes Film Festival – it may have escaped your attention that your order of new potatoes was less than generous that evening. You should have received at least six potatoes on your plate, but only three were present by the time it arrived at your table.
I’m ashamed to say it now, but in a moment of weakness I scoffed them as the plate swept past me on the way to your table. You see, I was your barman that evening and it was customary among some of the staff at 192 at the time to boast about which celebrity’s plate they had ‘shared’.
Over the two years in the mid-Nineties that I poured drinks at 192, Notting Hill’s legendary ‘original’ neighbourhood restaurant, I ‘shared’ a number of fine meals with other notable diners including Uma Thurman, Kylie Minogue, Robbie Williams and George Michael. The odd chip here, a crouton there. At any other restaurant in London this would have (rightly) led to my instant dismissal, but 192 was always a slightly unpredictable and, at times, anarchic place to work. Rules weren’t so much there to be broken; they just weren’t there in the first place.
This, of course, was the restaurant’s star ingredient. The reason why its legend grew to the point where Martin Amis and Helen Fielding name-checked the place in their novels, and where normally self-aware stars would feel relaxed enough to let a bottle of wine get the better of them, was because it managed to cultivate a clubby, laissez-faire ambience among its staff and customers. It wasn’t a coincidence that its founders also owned the Groucho Club.
I speak in the past tense because 192 has recently been sold on for the second time in two years and even though it is currently being refurbished and promises to reopen once more as 192, its ties with the original owners have been severed once and for all. Regulars such as Mariella Frostrup have been lamenting the loss in the press and many locals see the sale as further evidence that Notting Hill is losing its unique soul and becoming more like a tourist theme park by the day.
But while 192 will probably be best remembered for only being out-celebritied by the Ivy, its real legacy is the chefs that passed through the kitchen. It opened in 1983 with Alastair Little at the helm and over the years, among others, Rowley Leigh (Kensington Place), Rose Gray (River Cafe), Dan Evans (Odette’s) and Adam Robinson (the Brackenbury) all stood at the pass. Alastair Little tells me now that the four original owners all had contradictory visions for their ‘wine bar with a difference’. One wanted tapas, one wanted two-star Michelin, one wanted gamey fare and one wanted salads for lunching ladies. In the end, the only thing that was agreed was there would be no quiche under any circumstance.
Thus was born one of the first, what came to be known as, ‘modern British’ restaurants. Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, the menu changed twice a day and many of the innovative dishes went on to grace other menus across London as the chefs and their influence dispersed. Buffalo mozzarella, panettone bread-and-butter pudding, vegetable tempura, sticky toffee pudding, carpaccio of beef, chicken liver mousse with red onion marmalade, rocket and pousse side salad, gravadlax and potato rosti – all these are now commonly found on menus across Britain today, but in their day, they must have looked foreign and experimental to the eyes of 192’s diners.
But for the customers the real attraction wasn’t the restaurant’s menu (or impressive list of wines by the glass), it was the guaranteed star-count. I can even remember people ringing to book and asking who they would be sitting next to that evening. But if the customers weren’t expected to play it cool when they spotted a star, the staff certainly were. We were a pretty hardened bunch and it took a lot to impress us, but there were some occasions when we were equally starstruck.
I fondly remember when one of our Italian pastry chefs was reduced to tears when gossip filtered down to the kitchen that Gianluca Vialli and Roberto Di Matteo had just sat down for dinner. This was the same Vialli that had just signed for Chelsea after lifting the European Cup with Juventus the summer before. Our pastry chef was a boyhood Juventus fan and announced that he couldn’t concentrate on his work in the knowledge that greatness was seated six feet above his head. He was later asked by the manager if he would like to personally present his lovingly decorated puddings to his idols. With tears running down his face, he nervously obliged and ended up with a signed napkin: the only time I saw a member of staff ask for someone’s autograph.
The one real out-and-out paparazzi moment I can remember (Patsy Kensit’s notorious hen night came long after I’d left) was when Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence first publicly confirmed their relationship by having Sunday lunch at 192. Both hid behind large dark glasses and spent an hour picking at their roast lunch in the knowledge that the entire restaurant, and a dozen or so photographers squinting through the window, were staring at them having just read about their relationship in that day’s tabloids.
On another occasion, the then-unknown Spice Girls celebrated signing their record deal by taking over the downstairs section of the restaurant for a private party. They got drunk on house white wine then made the kitchen staff dance with them while they loudly played ‘Wannabe’ repeatedly on a ghetto-blaster they had brought with them. Customers upstairs got so irate that many threatened to walk out unless we asked them to leave.
My proudest moment, however, was when I single-handedly rescued the then England cricket captain from humiliation. Michael Atherton, who was batting not out at a Lord’s Test, came to 192 in the evening with friends. He sensibly stuck to drinking Coca-Cola, but an Australian colleague of mine thought it would be a good idea to sabotage the England captain’s performance by lacing his Coke with a vodka or three. I managed to intercept the drink and smiled to myself the next day when Atherton went on to complete his half-century.
But the pride I took from that moment will never counter the regret I still feel for my moment with Tom Cruise’s potatoes. If you’re ever in town again, Tom, the Jersey Royals are on me.
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