Gossip from the top table

16 June 2016

1:00 PM

16 June 2016

1:00 PM

In the 1970s, when there were many fewer restaurants in London, Locket’s was much the best place to eat around Westminster. The IRA once paid it a compliment by -trying to bomb it. If a lobbyist -invited one to lunch there, it meant that a) his firm had a large budget, b) he was hoping for important information — or c) he was feeling like a good lunch. The food was a pre-nouvelle cuisine London version of sophisticated French food: dishes such as Tournedos Rossini or Steak Diane; you get the picture (the upper-middle-class version of prawn cocktail and Black Forest gateau).

Locket’s catered for trenchermen’s appetites, and I remember a couple of proper sessions there with Denis -Healey. I am not sure whether any politician lunches like that these days, and he did live to be 98. After Michael Foot had defeated him for the leadership, Denis was finding it increasingly hard to pretend to take his front-bench colleagues seriously. A budget was coming up. Dear old Footie had taken to reading the FT. ‘That is probably a mistake,’ said I. Denis nodded in vigorous agreement. ‘He is carrying around these yellowing pink cuttings. He thinks that they make a point. It is never apparent to me. He should stick to Jonathan Swift.’

There was also Barbara Castle, a delightful mixture of flirtation and cattiness. After confessing that I was a Tory, I was treated like an errant grandson. There was clearly a bond of respect and even affection between her and Margaret Thatcher. ‘In 1979, I wanted you Tories to be crushed underfoot. But I also knew that there would be consequences. Everyone would have said “That’s what happens if you choose a woman.” The cause of women in politics would have been set back for a generation.’

She and Mrs T shared two related attributes. At all times they were both intensely feminine. At all times they both wanted to look immaculate, but often had little time to achieve the desired effect. I suspect that when they met, all girls together, in the ladies’ loo or wherever, they passed on tips.

Barbara did not respect all her female colleagues. Shirley Williams came in for especial scorn. ‘Bruce — forget politics — just speaking as a man, don’t you think there’s something wrong with a woman who lets herself go the way Shirley has?’ ‘We-ell…’

‘My Ted and I were watching her on TV once. Now Ted [her late husband] was a charitable man [unlike his widow]. But Shirley looked awful. She looked as if she’d slept under a hedge, then crawled through it, then been dragged back through it. So I said to Ted, “What does she look like to you, as a man?” And he said, “A butch old les.” ’ I wish I had seen more of Barbara. She was always lively company.

Then Locket’s became Shepherd’s and underwent vicissitudes, some more successful than others. But it is being revived. Still called Shepherd’s, it has a new proprietor in Lionel -Zetter, who himself has had a stimulating career in political PR and working for the Tory party in several capacities. At one stage he played rugby against Stephen Crabb and he has an interesting insight into that rising young hope. Stephen is a devout Christian. In these unregenerate times, that might make him an object of suspicion: a bit of a prig, perhaps? Emphatically no, says Lionel, or at least not on the rugger pitch, where he left the Beatitudes on the touchline and played according to Willie John McBride’s first commandment: ‘Get your retaliation in first.’

The food at the new Shepherd’s is best described as modern British: a thoroughly sound menu based on good, well-sourced ingredients. The wine list is excellent and thoughtful. We tasted a number of bottles, most notably a magnificent Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne 2000, but the carefully chosen lesser bottles are good value. Lionel’s Shepherd’s deserves to flourish.

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