One of the best things about a week eating out in London were the sounds of a dining room unadorned with music.
My wife and I managed to get our three kids (all boys, 12, 10 and 6) to sit more or less quietly through a lunch of nearly three hours last week. And without screens or devices. How is this possible? I credit three things. First, it was a very good lunch. Second it was with very good company. And third it was held in a calm and quiet dining room. The lunch was at St. John, Smithfield, where my family were the guests of its proprietors, chef Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver. St. John is my one of my favourite restaurants in the world, and my wife and I have been visiting it and dining there since before I met Fergus and Trevor, when they came to Toronto for the Terroir Symposium, a few years ago. It’s, obviously, a great treat, an honour and a privilege to dine there as their guests, but they are often not in London when we are, and we’ve also slipped in to dine unannounced. The experience is uniformly good in either case.
The quality of a meal at St. John has much to do with my first point above: it’s delicious food, deceptively simple and perfectly executed from the bread basket to the coffee and digestif. But it also has much to do with the dining room, a converted bacon smokehouse. It’s Spartanly furnished. White walls reflect natural light, glass and tableware us uniform and utilitarian, there are no phones allowed, and, crucially I think, there is no music.
I take that back: there is a kind of music. It’s a low rumble of conversation punctuated by the occasional clang of tableware or clink of glasses coming together in a toast. It is the music of conviviality, and it soothes the beasts who have come to dine there, whether City “hedgies” or advertising executives from Holborne, like no other sound. I am convinced that it was largely the quiet hum of St. John’s got us through lunch with our kids. (Fergus and Trevor were very good with, and to, them as well; each is a skilled father.)
The no music policy is religion for Fergus and Trevor. I knew that as a keen student of their hospitality ways. Having been previously inculcated with the ethos, I noticed in other good restaurants in London on this trip. Especially two of my favourite gastro pubs, the Landsdowne in Primrose Hill and The Havelock in Brook Green. Perhaps the quiet is linked to the tradition of British pub. There is a solemn dignity about having a drink or two alone in silence, or focusing exclusively on the conversation at one’s table. I think it’s good for the soul.
I don’t get out as much as I should at home. Are there restaurants or wine bars in Toronto (or anywhere in North America) on the sharp end of the hospitality business that don’t play music? I hope so.