Before I arrive at Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill to review Fay Maschler, I glance at the time and congratulate myself for being early. I should have known better. As usual, the Queen of the London restaurant scene has got there first. She sits regally in a corner of a room, a bottle of Ruinart Blanc des Blancs discreetly gesturing in her direction, an invisible spell cast over the room. She’s appearing as herself tonight, no review necessary, but she realises her mere presence will raise everyone’s game. “Having done this job for so long, I do get recognised,” she smiles. “Actually, I quite miss it when it doesn’t happen…”
As the Evening Standard’s restaurant critic since 1972, Maschler has been at the heart of London’s transformation from gastronomic backwater to one of the most fun and varied and delicious eating cities in the world. She is the critic from whom the others crib, the one who takes the greatest pain over her judgments (she always goes twice to guard against aberrations) and the one whose verdicts cause the greatest pain. She once described a Gordon Ramsay kidney dish as “toxic scum on a stagnant pond”. “Indifferent restaurants do the job of closing down very efficiently themselves,” is how she puts it. “I may have helped some on the way.”
However the smarter chefs (and dining companions) know that raising their game will be to everyone’s advantage — and that “five stars from Fay” is no less a garland than three Michelin stars. Moreover, after six or so restaurant visits a week, for 44 weeks a year, for 43 years (by my count, 11,352 meals) her enthusiasm is undimmed. “I’ve always loved restaurants, ever since I was a child,” she says. “My father would often have to entertain clients and my parents would take me with them. My mother said I was always difficult, always asking questions.”
Her dreamlike birthday party at L’Escargot on Wednesday night — #FayDay as it became known on Instagram — was testament to her appetite for life. Over three floors, hundreds of guests, including Giorgio Locatelli, Florence Knight, Mark Hix, A A Gill and Sir Howard Hodgkin, danced, cheered and raised endless martinis. Waiters materialised with oysters from Richard Corrigan, smoked eel sandwiches from Quo Vadis, lamb biriyani from Chutney Mary, fried chicken buns from Bao.
Her three children, Ben, Alice and Hannah, her stepdaughter Amy, her sister Beth and husband Reg paid tributes to her warmth, generosity, professionalism, humour and grammatical exactitude.
Just to show she wasn’t afraid to ice the mood, she organised a rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Anthem — “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in” — before the party adjourned to the dancefloor. Even Fay (who can drink anyone under the table) complained of a sore head in the morning.
She was born Fay Coventry in India in 1945. After a spell in Surrey her father, a civil engineer, took up a post in his firm’s New York office and moved the family to Connecticut when she was 12. “It was the beginning of the summer and I didn’t know a soul. My mother would have a few sherries in the afternoons and go to bed, my sister Beth had been left behind, and so I started cooking to occupy myself.”
She learned the basics from Mrs Beeton and a volume called the Radiation Cookbook, which came free with the gas cooker and soon took over the family meals. “It reverses the parent-child dynamic if the child is cooking the food and then the parents feel they have to eat it. Even in those days, I sensed that was quite… interesting.”
The family came back to England when she was 15 and she moved to London after her A-levels. By 1966 she was living on Old Brompton Road, working as a copywriter at J Walter Thompson and at Nick’s Diner on Ifield Road in the evenings, then one of the most fashionable haunts of Swinging London. “It was one of the few little bistros that was run by someone who had actually been to France.”
Her culinary talent turned the head of her first husband, Tom Maschler, on his way to becoming a literary legend at the helm of Jonathan Cape. She was “sort of” going out with Richard Neville, the editor of the countercultural journal Oz, but managed to upgrade to his dashing publisher at the launch party of his book. “I learned what his favourite things were and what his mother cooked for him,” she says. “It helped that he was unbelievably mean and didn’t like paying for restaurants.”
Proud: Fay Maschler collecting her OBE in 2004 (Picture: Glen Copus)
They married in 1970 and were seen as one of London’s most glamorous couples. Tom would introduce Gabriel García Márquez to English readers, mentor the travel writer Bruce Chatwin and publish Ian McEwan’s first works. Fay’s catering went up a gear. “I always used to have this idea of myself as a great literary hostess, which I never really was,” she laughs. “I remember one party with Jonathan Miller, Freddy Raphael and Kurt Vonnegut that didn’t work at all. Nobody liked each other. It’s actually much better to have people you like to dinner rather than famous authors.”
In 1972 she won the chance to review restaurants for the Evening Standard in a competition that she entered at the suggestion of her friend, Dusty Wesker (wife of the playwright Arnold, who was the best man at her and Tom’s wedding). When it came down to the three finalists, the editor Charles Wintour (father of Anna) is said to have grown impatient with the process and declared: “F*** it. Give it to the woman.” The prize was supposed to go on for three months; she has now outlasted 10 editors.
Initially the hours worked well with childcare. Fay and Tom separated after 12 years of marriage and three children: Hannah, now a midwife who lives in New Zealand; Alice, who runs a school in Tamil Nadu; and Ben, who used to run a gastropub and now works for Action Against Hunger.
It was also handy when she met the man who would become her second husband — the thriller writer and painter Reg Gadney — in 1992 at a dinner party held by a mutual friend, the Chinese chef Yan Kit-So. “I had tried to get out of it, as I imagined it would be full of middle-aged people drinking warm sauvignon blanc. I looked to the place next to me and saw it was someone called Reg and thought, well that’s the last straw…” He has been her faithful dining companion ever since.
Our mains arrive. I opt for a cod thing involving squid, artichokes and courgette flowers and it is delicious; she believes Bentley’s (run by her friend Richard Corrigan) to be underrated. She has opted for lobster spaghetti — “All these idiots who go on gluten-free diets for no reason… Why can’t you just eat properly?” — but doesn’t get too far with it. The sauce isn’t oily enough, apparently, and this is one of those instances where tinned tomatoes would have been better than fresh.
Still, a minor complaint. The things that really make her heart sink are, in no particular order: “anywhere derivative of other places”; waiters who repeat her order back word-for-word and then again when the food arrives “as if one were a cretin”; music so loud it prohibits conversation and general-issue pretension. She counts herself lucky that she doesn’t have to leave London to review, which spares her the MasterChef wannabeism of the provinces.
Fay Maschler with Marco Pierre White (Picture: Danny Elwes)
As for her counterparts on other papers, she most admires Marina O’Loughlin of the Guardian and Tracey MacLeod of the Independent. She has less time for those who relish cruelty for its own sake. “It sounds rather prim to say but I think so much reviewing is so unfair. I try not to be vicious. When you know what hard work it is to be a chef or a waiter or a barman, it’s so unfair to juggle with their feelings like that.”
She rates the most exciting period for London restaurants as the mid-Eighties, when figures such as Rose Gray (River Café), Rowley Leigh (Kensington Place) and Simon Hopkinson (Bibendum) burst on to the scene. “Before then, you really struggled to find anyone actually using their intelligence in a kitchen.”
The greatest restaurant she ever ate at was Marco Pierre White’s Harveys in Wandsworth (1987-1993). “I’ve never eaten better food than when he cooked at Harveys. He had almost become the food. He would identify with a piece of salmon so closely that he’d understand exactly what to do with it.”
Of the new generation, she rates Oliver Dabbous (“a genuine game-changer”), Karam Sethi, the Indian chef behind Gymkhana, and Bao (whence those divine buns), and the team behind The Clove Club in Shoreditch. “Everything has changed for the better since I’ve been reviewing restaurants,” she says. “That’s the reason I’ve been able to keep on doing it. I can’t imagine being a theatre reviewer and carrying on for that amount of time.”
Short of slowing down, she now eats out more than she ever has, sometimes lunch and dinner, dutifully documenting everything with her iPhone. She has a new addition to her Wednesday column, “Five Things Fay Ate This Week”, and a reputation to keep up. “I just couldn’t bear to put anything dull in there,” she says. It’s almost selfless.
And she’s made of iron, too. When the mains are cleared, she orders a Chablis. I try to get away with mint tea. “Go on, you’ll have something stronger,” she says, affronted. There is no option but to obey. And graciously concede through a brandy hangover the next day that some constitutions are stronger than others.