I'm not sure when, exactly, Marine Ices took up residence in my heart. It may have been on October 17th, 1974 when my father rounded off my 10th birthday by treating me to a Banana Split after a trip to see The Italian Job. Or was it in the autumn of 1982 when I was going out with a girl in Swiss Cottage and used to stop at Marine Ices on my way to her house to pick up a block of chocolate ice cream? More likely it was last January when my father and I went back there for old time's sake. He died a few days later, making it the last meal we ever had together.
On a whim, I decided to go back this North London institution on the anniversary of his death. I'm not particularly sentimental, but it seemed appropriate, a way of marking the occasion that he would have appreciated.
It turned out to be a colossal blunder.
Let me say immediately that it wasn't the fault of Marine Ices. I don't suppose this restaurant-cum-ice-cream parlour has changed much since it first opened 72 years ago. The mistake consisted of trying to combine this trip down memory lane with a dinner to celebrate the first night of a play that a friend of mine was appearing in. This friend, whose real name is Baron Clement von Franckenstein, was expecting something a little grander, as were the other members of his party. Indeed, two of them took one look at the place and suddenly remembered they'd promised the babysitter they'd be home by 10.30pm. Marine Ices has always struck me as a little slice of heaven, but if you're used to dining at San Lorenzo I daresay it can seem a little dowdy.
I hoped they'd change their minds once we were seated, but something on the wine list immediately caught the Baron's eye. It was a description of Montepalciano d'Abruzzo Barone Cornacchia. "Look at this," he boomed. "I quote: 'A bit of a beast of a wine.' Well, you can't fault them for honesty." I tried to explain that the person who'd compiled the list probably wasn't using the word "beast" as a synonym for "undrinkable", but it was no good. He and his friends thought it was quite the funniest thing they'd ever heard.
I shrank into my chair, hoping the other diners hadn't heard. The walls of Marine Ices are covered with photographs of celebrities, but none of them were around that night. On the contrary, the clientele were just ordinary, North London types, people like my father and I.
The restaurant received a temporary reprieve when the pizza arrived. One of the Baron's friends pronounced it "surprisingly good" and for 15 glorious minutes it looked as though they might succumb to the charms of Marine Ices after all. But the cannelloni put an end to my hopes. The man on my left-a famous society figure-pronounced it "completely inedible" and loudly asked the Baron why on earth they'd come to this "greasy spoon" instead of going to "a proper restaurant".
As the waiter cleared our plates, I was assailed by doubts. Was I mistaken about what a magical place this was? Would it still make a favourable impression if it wasn't such an integral part of my childhood?
Then my Banana Split arrived. No, I hadn't imagined it. It was every bit as good as I remembered it being. Say what you like about the food and wine, I thought, but you can't get ice cream like this at San Lorenzo. It may not be the smartest restaurant in London, but I know where I'm taking my son on his 10th birthday.