Illustration by Richard Allen of a man in an Italian restaurant
© Richard Allen

Last night I went to one of the best restaurants in the world for my daughter’s 11th birthday.

So where did I eat? That’s rather a problem because neither you nor the judges of the recent World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards will ever have heard of it, and I’m not inclined to give you the name.

In your home town, like mine, there’s a restaurant I bet you’ve forgotten about. It might have check tablecloths and it might have old straw-covered bottles hanging from the ceiling. If the gods of irony are smiling, it will have a poorly executed mural of the Venice Lido or a smoking Etna or the hills of Tuscany.

The neighbourhood Italian seems to teeter perpetually on the edge of oblivion.

Almost all the high-street Italians are family-run. Most of those families were part of a postwar influx who, like many incoming communities, had little to capitalise on in their new home apart from their ethnicity. It was not that immigrant Italians had necessarily been brilliant cooks back home but that restaurants could be set up quickly, give jobs to the entire family and weren’t dependent on a command of the local language.

In 1950s Britain, “eating out” occupied one of two extremes. At the top of the social scale, the rich were throwing rolls at each other over the aspic at the Café Royal; at the other end was the interminable tea-and-two-slices of the working classes. The middle classes seldom ate out; unable to find anywhere genteel and affordable, they subjected themselves to a kind of grim house arrest of Brown Windsor soup and fish forks.

Italian restaurants filled this social void. Not as intimidating as posh French places, they were local joints where ordinary people could afford to sit and sip Chianti and chat. In the long years before we dreamt up gastropubs and the food renaissance, the high-street Italian defined “eating out” for ordinary Brits. It was the place where our parents went the day they found out they were expecting a child, the place we went on our first date. When all we could offer were tea rooms and the culinary roadkill of pie and mash or fish and chips, the Italians kept us in touch with the civilising influence of the table.

Today, many family-owned Italians are a victim of their own success. The first generation might have been happy to work with the family but their descendants are successful in other fields, and justifiably not keen on getting up at six to beat out veal scaloppine.

My neighbourhood Italian is still astonishing. It has been run by the same family for years. The food is handmade by people who love cooking. The authenticity of the dishes is, in one respect, non-existent – like many of my generation of food lovers, I’m profoundly schooled in the controversies about fresh and dried pasta and the evil of tomato purée in sauces – but then that was never the tradition in which the high-street Italian was supposed to operate.It’s time we accepted that these places have created their own archetypes. A long-cooked bolognese, poured in shocking quantity over well-buttered pasta, is a lovesome thing. Eggy carbonara with identifiable chunks of smokey bacon and forbidden nuggets of sweetly clarified onion is enough to make me howl at the moon; and garlic bread – effectively hot buttered toast with a Marcello Mastroianni accent – is tantamount to seduction.

It’s easy to sneer at the little place on the corner with the check tablecloths. We’re so sophisticated now. We know that spag bol is as authentic as the ludicrous phallic pepper grinders and the vile bought-in ice-cream bombes; but it’s a shortsighted prejudice. There are precious few family-run small businesses left on our high streets and those that place a premium on decent food and hospitality are even fewer.

And my local? One of the best restaurants in the world? Really? When a knackered father walks in off the street, the owner remembers his daughter’s name, he’s seated at a comfortable table and treated to good food prepared with care, there’s really nowhere better.


Tim Hayward is the F&M Food & Drink Awards Food Writer of the Year.; Twitter @TimHayward

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