Illustration by Antony Hare

Giles Coren on white truffles, writing well and ‘the girlfriend seat’

We sit down with the best-known restaurant critic in the capital for lunch at Harry’s Dolce Vita

There comes a point in any meal with Giles Coren (and I say this having participated in precisely one), when a lady of a certain age, giddy under the weight of her own-brand jewellery and a mid-morning booster jab of prosecco, drops to her haunches by the table to tell him — no, to urge him — to keep up the good work. (There is often some clasping of hands at this point, and, on one side at least, some medium-to-heavy panting).

“Can I just tell you that you must keep on doing what you’re doing” she will say with damp eyes, imploring the critic to stay out in the field, to keep battling against the tide of mediocre restaurants, to sort always the wheat from the chaff so that the rest of us can spend our (husband’s) hard earned money in good conscience.

It happens three times in our short lunch together. In certain parts of Knightsbridge, the profession of restaurant reviewer is considered somewhere between paramedic and primary school teacher in the canon of public service. 

Not that lunch at Harry’s Dolce Vita feels much like hard work, as the growing pile of freshly-sliced white truffle on Giles’s tagliolini will tell you. The Italian maitre d’ drifted off piste to recommend this dish to Giles, shortly after his “I’m sure I know you from somewhere” opening gambit (I suspect he says that to all the boys, at least all the ones with national newspaper columns).

People — or at least people who have five course business lunches on a Wednesday in January — feel like they know Giles Coren somehow, even if they don’t, like he’s Ant and Dec or Princess Diana. I think it’s because they have read his column, and because he writes like he’s talking to you as an old friend, albeit one who’s just criticised your haircut and quite possibly kissed your wife.

Don’t sit Giles Coren in ‘the girlfriend seat’

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He talks like that, too. When he notices that his seat is ever-so-slightly lower than mine, he says “If I wasn’t comparably far more fucking talented and successful than you, I might even feel slightly intimidated right now.” (He also says lots of other things that I couldn’t possibly put down on paper because my mother might read this and because our lawyers almost certainly won’t.)

But at least he’s got the better view. Usually, when Giles is paid to eat out at restaurants, he graciously faces the wall so his wife can gaze out into the dining room. This time, seeing as it’s not clear whether I’m reviewing him or he’s reviewing the food or we’re both reviewing each other reviewing the food (500 words in and I’m still not sure, to be honest), I let him have the “girlfriend seat”, as he calls it. From there, he has an uninterrupted line of sight across the restaurant and out onto the vast flank of Harrods.

Giles Coren is not the critic you think he is

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Most people think of Giles Coren as the critic who publicly disemboweled a sub-editor for dropping a single syllable in the final line of a piece (“No-one touches my copy anymore” he says. “And if they do, they do it in a very facetious way: ‘Dear Giles: Did you mean to spell Marseille wrong? Is this perhaps some very clever joke we don’t understand? ”) But, this afternoon at least, he is all sweetness and light. He eats slightly too quickly like a hungry teenager, and shares out the zucchini fritti with passers by, and flutters his eyelashes at everyone.

People say that the Queen must think everywhere smells of fresh paint. Perhaps Giles Coren, as the most recognised critic in town, thinks every plate of pasta has extra truffle, every dining room has a doting maitre d’, and every imported housewife would like to take him home in their pocket.

What does a typical day look like for Giles Coren?

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“Young journos sometimes email me and ask for advice. I don’t know what to tell you — the path I took doesn’t exist anymore” Giles says. “I don’t really have a job. I wake up, take my kids to school, write for an hour and a half, have lunch, and then pick my kids up from school. And people pay me a market-clearing rate for a thousand words, and I live pretty happily off a couple of columns a month.” He says. “Other than that, my advice is just write clearly, like you speak. And have a fucking point.”

Ah, right. And as for the food? Good, unpretentious, indulgent stalwarts from the Old Country, once you get over the prices demanded by its new money catchment area. Some funny business with a toadstool-shaped ice-cream and a warm pistachio goo at some point, but the pasta is reassuringly lovely and perfectly executed, and the fried bits are moreish. Or, as Giles puts it: “quite decent scran.”

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