Just in case you thought this was the kind of blog where I'd be visiting Michelin-starred places week after week, here we are at the other end of the gastronomic price range. Fish and chips in the Swan Restaurant, Southport.
The family had been visiting The Swan on and off for the best part of 20-odd years, and it had been open God knows how many before that, but for some reason it's one of those places you just kind of forget exist from time to time. There are plenty more fish & chip shops in the North West and elsewhere that are more famous, and claim fresher fish, more formal service and home-made tartare sauce. But of course that's not really the point of fish & chips. It's not a gourmet experience, it's not supposed to be a life-changing meal or one for the Michelin boys. It's comfort food; unpretentious of course, but not basic, and deceptively difficult to get right - anyone who's had dry chewy fish in soggy batter kept warm for hours under a heat lamp will testify to that. And you'd need a particularly special reason to visit Southport, too, which, and I'm being fair, is otherwise a dump, populated mainly by the elderly, the insane and the elderly insane. I should know, I used to work there. People use the phrase "faded grandeur" to describe Southport quite a lot, probably because it sounds a bit better than "decrepit, lairy hellhole".
Sorry about that, I really shouldn't talk about Southport before my medication. Anyway, this, folks, is the real deal. Fresh market cod covered in a fantastic crispy beer batter, lovely fluffy chips soaked in as much salt and vinegar as my kidneys could stand, with very tasty mushy peas and complimentary thin white sliced bread and butter, for making chip butties. No starter, no dessert, the shortest wine list you're ever likely to see (white, red, rose) and one beer. And of course, stray far from the house specialities (fish, chips, peas... that's it) and you're setting yourself up for disappointment. One diner's half of chicken clearly had been sitting around most of the day, and the gravy was straight out of a packet. But the fish and chips were lovely - really really nice.
And a word about the service - which was charming and efficient and a damn sight better than the last time I tried fish and chips in London (the Fish Club in Battersea, since you ask. Don't go). Even though there were six of us, all the food arrived hot and at the same time, a ten minute wait between ordering and receiving the food was apologised for (!) and we really couldn't complain about anything. The room was clean and comfortable if not particularly attractive, but every table was taken by the time we left, which tells you a lot about a place. Non-smoking, too.
I'm saving the best till last, though - the final bill, including a few mini bottles of house white and a beer, came to £46. For six people. To put that into context, that's less than one third of the price I paid for just my own meal at Ramsay's last week. A full twenty times cheaper. Extraordinarily good value, and probably the best fish and chip bargain in the North West, if not the world. Easily the best reason to visit Southport on a Sunday evening. No wait, the only reason.
Tonight I'm off to the Greyhound in Battersea. If there's fish and chips on the menu, I can guarantee it will be many times more expensive and not nearly as good. But I will dutifully pay through the nose for it then have a good moan on here afterwards. Watch this space.