White ivy leaf tablecloths, not very well pressed, cover the round dining tables. There is carpet on the floor and the chairs are reproduction Regency. The room is large, and suspended close to the ceiling are two glass chandeliers that emit the kind of light that makes the room feel darker. Three or four serving women hover, all kitted out in a style of waistcoated uniforms last seen on British Rail in the 70s. All that’s missing is the bow tie. A sepulchral silence deadens any vestige of hospitality.
With only two other tables occupied, we are of course shown to the one positioned right next to the draughty door. Regular guests have already secured those next to the windows. Water is poured from a glass jug by one of the younger crows. Cold, limpid Welsh water. That, and the soft, batch-baked white rolls are the best thing about the entire dinner.
The wine list is pedestrian albeit with a rather odd emphasis on New World Wines. I hear two tables refusing any wine at all. That’s the kind of clientele which frequents passé country house hotels. As the room fills, the chatter remains muted. The average age of the customers is the same as ours – but I feel 40 years younger, at least mentally, because unlike these well behaved pensioners I want to scream at the pointless pretension, the ‘naiceness’ of it all, the utter lack of style or intelligence.
Everything harks back to the 80s, from the redundant fish knives to the quenelle of nondescript butter that’s been carefully crafted and then left out long enough to turn to grease. The menu, in brown fake-leather covers, is a litany of self-congratulatory, uneducated chefdom – local wild sea bass grilled with presentations (sic) of Tuscan vegetables. Actually the jumped-up langoustine cream is deeply flavoured and technically sound. But no one in the kitchen has considered why it needs a disorderly clump of herbage on top, and no one out front has thought how its possible to use a table knife and fork in the type of small glass bowl you’d normally serve raspberries.
Two courses of this nonsense cost £47, three courses £65. The mystery is, who actually enjoys it? Why do elderly people want to sit in a dreary, cream-painted dining room eating preposterous confections that couldn’t be further removed from the fish and chips they’d really enjoy? It’s getting on for 40 years since this kind of dining experience was in vogue. Even the most traditional of London hotels has long moved on. But here, in the sticks, enough people must still think ‘fine dining’ is the acme of sophistication. It’s not hard to detect them. Just look for the grey polyester trousers and the bottle of Pinot Grigio.