Back in 1995 when my mom and I made our wonderful mother-daughter sojourn to Europe, I was already a keen restaurant patron, as was Mamma. But of course, travelling on South African Rands in Europe was a rather tricky proposition. Whereas I had grown up in a world where for decades the British Pound was worth two Rands, things had been economically difficult for the country in the dying years of the last apartheid government, and as a result our currency wasn't half the Rand it used to be – quite literally. When we visited London in 1995, the exchange rate was a scandalously bad five Rands to the pound, and London is not known for being a cheap city! (Incidentally, the Rand is now at fourteen to the Pound – we had no idea how good we had it in 1995 ;-))
Before arriving in London, we had already visited Neuschwanstein and Vienna, so our wallets were beginning to feel the burn. So what's a hungry forex-challenged tourist to do?? Our hotel was one of those hulking buildings kept alive purely by travel agents tacking the accommodation onto your flights. It had beautiful public rooms and, shall we say, eclectic bedrooms. Eclectic as in green carpet, pink curtains and mismatched bedspreads. And after the first morning's attempt at breakfast (soggy toast, stingy little jam containers and coffee that tasted fresh from the muddy bottom of the River Thames), we wisely chose to get coffee pastries from the shop across the road and sit under the autumn trees in Russel Square to eat them! Clearly, dinner in the hotel was not an option.
In our bulging suitcases, however, we did have a very useful book: Let's Go Britain, lent to me at Johannesburg airport by my good friend Peter as we set off on our journey. And according to this bible of budget travel, the place we needed to visit if we wanted to dine in a princely area for pauper's prices was The Stockpot. From what I can tell, the Stockpot is the name of a small London chain of restaurants (I know of four, but there may be more)and they have been around for a while – I believe the Chelsea branch was called the Chelsea Pot and was around in the early 1980s. They seem to have a knack of finding premises in prime locations and then packing in the crowds with their extensive menu of home-cooked style grub. This is not cuisine, people, it's grub – but it's always fresh and always plentiful… and always cheap. There is nothing fancy about them – no tablecloths, bright lighting, noisy patrons and tables so close together that you can never be sure the hand you reach for under the table is your date's (I believe "cosy" is the politically correct term…). But if you're a broke student or a tourist on a budget, or you need a quick meal before or afer a show and can't face another Pizza Express pizza, or if you just want a plate of food that looks like it might have come from your mom's kitchen – then this is the place for you.
On that occasion we retraced Peter's steps and headed for the Basil Street Stockpot. I remember a feeling of mild panic as we located it – could we really afford to eat somewhere that is practically sandwiched between Harrods and Harvey Nichols, across the road from Hyde Park? But my fears were unfounded – look at the menu pic above. Starters begin at £1.45 and nothing hits the £3 mark! And main courses pretty much follow that trend, hovering around the £4-5 mark. Astonishing. And all main courses come with salad and two veg – nothing fancy or beautiful, just a generous spoonful of your 5-a-day allocation. So it's no wonder that when Nick and I first came to London in 2000, sleeping on a friend's floor and limping along on one salary, the first place we went for a Friday night treat meal out was… the Stockpot (although the one we go to now is the Old Compton Road branch).
Our most recent visit was after a friend's birthday drinks in the West End. By the time we left, it was that tricky time of the evening: to late for a proper restaurant meal, and yet if we first made the 45 min trip home, it woudl be too late for ANY meal, and we were both starving. So we decided to revisit our old haunt and ended up at the Old Compton Street Stockpot. It was Friday and the place was heaving, to the extent that I was worried we would be bundled down to the dungeon-like basement dining room (avoid if possible!). But then our eagle-eyed waiter spotted a tiny table for two in the main room and we were seated. Cosy. The dapper gentleman next to us looked like a retired Shakespearean actor and kindly offered to host our bottle of wine on his table, 5cm away, as he could see we were struggling to get ourselves, out bags and winter coats stowed, let alone having space for the food and drink on the table. But once that was sorted, we were all quite happy. The menu changes in minuscule ways, but somewhat retro old favourites are always there: mackerel pate, cheese salad, salmon fishcakes, supreme of chicken with chasseur sauce, lamb chops. Although I am usually a smoked mackerel salad kinda girl, this time we shared the cheese salad to start – and as you see there is nothing remotely chi-chi about it. Lots of fresh salad. A slab of cheese. Like mom might have made for an after-school lunch. For mains I believe Nick had chicken of some description and I felt in need of comforting and had the fish pie. As you see, perhaps not the most photogenic presentation of this dish, but plentiful, freshly made and warm and tasty, with more vegetables on the side than most places charging three times as much would serve you. Comforting. And even more comforting was the price: under £20 for the two of us, including a half-bottle of wine.
OK, so if you are in the mood for a romantic dinner a deux or you want a cutting-edge culinary experience, this is not the place for you. But, say what you like about the basic facilities, the cramped space, the patchy service (the Kings Road branch is mentioned repeatedly as having The Rudest Manager in London…) – in an age where "cheap" means "nasty and probably microwaved from frozen", I find it refreshing to know that place like this still exists in the heart of London's most expensive neighbourhoods.
Liked: excellent value for money, huge portions, locations
Disliked: tables very close together
18 Old Compton Street
Tel. 020 7287 1066
6 Basil Street
Tel. 020 7589 8627
273 Kings Road
Tel. 020 7823 3175
38-40 Panton Street
Tel. 020 7839 5142