diamond geezer

 Thursday, December 12, 2019

One of the benefits of a five week election campaign is that the Houses of Parliament have no business to complete so their restaurants are empty. It wouldn't do to send the catering staff home, so instead they open up their tables to private bookings. Both the Members' Dining Room and Peers' Dining Room take part, so pick your chamber and pick your date (Nov 12th - Dec 13th (excluding Dec 9, 10 and weekends)).

BestMate chose the Peers' Dining Room, and yesterday. The elected house on the day of the actual election might have been more appropriate, but I was delighted to be spending my 20,000th day eating lunch somewhere really special. BestMate'sParents and BestMate'sOtherHalf came too.

Getting inside the Palace of Westminster isn't hard, so long as you don't mind airport-style security. Getting inside the Peers' Dining Room is a little trickier and requires a booking reference, a bit of a walk and 'smart casual' clothing. Do not wear trainers. Gentlemen, ensure your shirt is collared. If you've never been inside the palace before, as BestMate'sParents hadn't, the walk through Westminster Hall into Gothic splendour is damned impressive. Now put your phone away, because photography is not allowed.

From first contact in Central Hall to the clearing away of the plates, it's clear that Peers' Dining Room staff are warm, friendly and very courteous. Expect to be called m'lord or m'lady, with a glint in the eye, even though everyone knows damned well you're just a member of the public taking advantage of an electoral gap.

No snooty coat check is provided, just a rack of hooks wheeled into the corridor which doubles up as part of the Peers' Library. The shelves along each wall are stuffed with useful books rather than vintage volumes, including a history of the KGB and another of the SAS, covering all bases.

Be sure to enjoy the opportunity of a drink in the Peers' Guest Room before you dine. Small cosy tables offer a view of the river Thames, a hearty fireplace, a giant oil painting or a wall covered in red flock wallpaper, depending on orientation. The bar menu is reasonably priced, as befits a public service institution, including a gin for under £3 and cocktails for under ten.

The Peers' Dining Room is a sumptuous L-shaped space with space for 80 covers, we were told, and faces an internal courtyard rather than the river. Its ceiling comprises numerous painted panels adorned with arms and fruit, but the real eye-grabber is the original herringbone wallpaper designed by the architect Augustus Pugin. Its pattern of crowned flowers on an off-yellow background would be too in-your-face for most dining rooms but looks perfect here.

I'd worn some proper trousers and got my black shoes out of retirement, but still felt a little underdressed compared to the other diners. A lot were men in suits, some were ladies who lunch, and others middle-aged couples at least one of whom looked like they worked in government. The set price of £50 per person perhaps pre-selects the clientele somewhat, but the waiting staff were just as nice to us as to them, and our dining experience was never the slightest bit uncomfortable.

The menu is firmly British with the emphasis on regional ingredients, conjured up onto the plate in modern style. This month's Public Dining Experience offers four well dressed starters (one broth, one salmon, one crab and one Waldorf salad with a celery panna cotta). My fish arrived on a disc of pressed cucumber floating in assorted creams and dollops, plus a black confection we later deduced was pumpernickel. As for the accompanying bread basket, none of us had ever experienced egg-shaped Marmite butter before. The others generally approved.

For the main course I resisted the Christmas turkey option as a tad too obvious, plumping instead for a half-plate of confit Aylesbury duck with artfully-arranged beets and pickled blackberries. It was rich and succulent, but a glance to my left confirmed that what I should have ordered was the haunch of venison. Those who plumped for the hunk of cod or frothy lemon sole were well pleased with their selection. It fell to the foreign-born member of the party to point out that on the menu Brussel sporuts had been misspelled.

What a pleasure to enjoy a meal in a room where nobody had their phone out and where every plate went unphotographed - like a trip back to the 20th century. It was a little odd to have to ask to go to the toilet, but wandering willy-nilly through the corridors of power isn't allowed so every loo visit has to be escorted. I made sure to look round while I was eating to remind myself what an utterly atypical restaurant this was, and tried to imagine all the lords and ladies who might have sat on my red leather chair before me.

For dessert my Shropshire take on blackberry and apple was tasty but insubstantial, a victory for style over substance, whereas nobody had a bad word to say about the cherry ice cream coated in smooth chocolate ganache. Finally came the teas and coffees and trays of petit fours, and you know you're having a posh meal when those appear. We could have washed all this down with a glass of heavily subsidised vintage port, but the sun had already set and the staff looked like they were probably ready to go home.

On the way out we declined a visit the House of Lords' gift shop, where we could have purchased an iced Christmas cake for £15. Instead we somehow managed to sweet talk a security guard into allowing us a quick look inside the Commons chamber, a room which which bowls me over every time because it's like walking onto a TV set and the centre of our democracy. Today we'll all be out voting for who gets to sit on its green benches, and thereby confirming the destiny of our nation. Pick carefully. Don't be the one who regrets ordering the duck.

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