This longstanding independent French bistro on Haverstock Hill has undeniable charm. Not least in its unchanged Parisian-style interior, all dark wood-panelled walls, dangling globe lights, whirling ceiling fans, and knick-knacks dotted about.
Rewind a decade (or more) and my partner and I used to eat there regularly: it’s one of those cafes with a menu of classics where you always end up ordering the same thing – in our case chicken kiev, chips and salad, washed down with house red. And perhaps a brandy to finish.
It had been years since our last visit (a kiev alarmingly cold in the centre finally pushed it out of favour). But the other week we noticed it had redone its signage, a little garishly in fact, so a return visit felt in order. Why not? And yet, even as we took our outside table on the pavement terrace on an unseasonably warm evening, I knew that this may be our last ever meal there.
The wine was just the start of it. I asked what the house red was (at £13.50 a bottle). “It’s just…red wine”, the waitress said, with a shrug. Can I see the bottle, I ventured? “Why?” she said. “Oh OK.” She disappeared to fetch an Italian Merlot that would be no more than a few quid in a cheap supermarket.
Unconvinced, we chose a slightly more costly Côtes du Rhône (at £16), thin but blandly drinkable. Once we’d opened it, that is, as she put the bottle on the table before serving someone else. When we asked for a corkscrew she thrust it down for us to open ourselves. It’s not that it was busy: she was the kind of saturnine soul who apparently disapproved of every customer.Except that is, the old boy watching a noisy action film on his phone next to us, the sound turned up full as he schlurped a Diet Coke through a straw. And on the other side, a literary agent (we surmised) barking loudly about writers to a monosyllabic friend puffing on a cigar. Perhaps they were regulars.
When we dared to ask for tap water, one cloudy glass of lukewarm water – no ice – was placed on the table, requiring us to ask for another. Still, we persisted in ordering the kiev. It was too late to back out now.
Through the fug – the chain-smoking literary agent was now distastefully on a roll about women who had “never got laid in their lives” – our plates arrived. Chips that had surely left a freezer bag minutes earlier lay scattered around a small tumulus of chicken kiev which, when forked, squirted butter languidly, the breast wafer-thin.
Most memorable was a tasty and colourful side dish of white cabbage, tomato and beetroot salad. The plates lay uncleared as we left, the bill not steep, although equally not insignificant (£38 for two without service).
Was this how Chez Nous always was, we wondered? Or were our standards somewhat lower then?
We so want to love it still, as we do any tenacious independently-owned business in these tough times. But sometimes stepping back into the past isn’t so advisable, after all.