Where would you eat if you didn't have long to live?
A seriously ill reader asked for my restaurant recommendations. I posted them on Twitter and it brought out the best in everyone
Every week I receive emails requesting restaurant recommendations. There are significant birthdays that need marking, cantankerous relatives who need placating. I try but don’t always manage to answer them all. The one I received at the end of May demanded an answer. Hugh Paton wanted my top 10 places in the UK; not gastro palaces offering experiences that would stay with him for the rest of his life, because it turned out there wasn’t much of his life left. He had recently been given a terminal cancer diagnosis and was no longer in the business of creating memories. As he put it: “Going and eating a few decent meals strikes me as one good way to spend some of my remaining time.”
I wrote him a list: the ramshackle Company Shed for bare-bones seafood on the Essex coast; the vivid, live-fire cooking of Traköl on the Gateshead side of the Tyne; the Game Bird at the Stafford Hotel in London for a bit of old-school British classicism, and so on. Because people like lists, I posted it to Twitter, explaining the context. The response was immense. People tweeted the restaurants they would go to in the same circumstances. They discussed the pleasures of a good meal in bad times. They celebrated the dishes that would most give them comfort.
Touchingly, many of the restaurants then stepped up, offering Hugh and his other half, Anna, lunch on them. Emails flew back and forth. Introductions were made. At one point he emailed his thanks but said he might leave it a month or two until treatment was under way. I counselled him against that. I had recently lost one of my closest friends to a similar cancer and knew full well that while you hope for time, it’s not a commodity you can bank on. “Carpe diem and all that,” I said.
He took my advice. “OK,” he wrote back, “carpe diem it is.” There were, by all accounts, wonderful meals at Margot and Rochelle Canteen at the ICA in London, and a trip to Parker’s Tavern in Cambridge, where a fire alarm forced them all out on to the street. Hugh was given a doorman’s plum-coloured coat against the chill, and was photographed in it, drink still in hand. He was the recipient of the kindness of strangers. But those three restaurants were all he managed. Hugh died towards the end of July, just two months after he first emailed me.
Review by Jay Raynor