Who in their right mind would ever open a restaurant? They're a bit like West End shows in that the failures vastly outnumber the successes and anyone investing in them is almost guaranteed to lose money. The upshot is that the longevity of a particular restaurant should be measured in dog years rather than real time: a restaurant that has been around for 10 years is the equivalent of any other business being around for 70.
This, then, should give you some idea of the achievement of Michael Proudlock, the owner of Foxtrot Oscar. Back in 1980, when this hardy perennial first appeared, you couldn't throw a stone in SW3 without hitting a restaurant designed to cater to the Chelsea Set. Indeed, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook lists no fewer than 21 café/restaurants, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. Today, the dog-year equivalent of 182 years later, Foxtrot Oscar is virtually the sole survivor. It's name may be posh slang for "f* off", but it continues to attract Hooray Henries and Henriettas like bees to a honeycomb.
What's the secret of its success? Well, without wishing to put too fine a point on it, it's probably not the food. Foxtrot Oscar has had the same Polish head chef since 1983 and, while he's good at what he does, his repertoire doesn't extend beyond Upper Class nursery food. Nor is it the décor. Foxtrot Oscar has the look--and smell--of an un-refurbished country pub. The water-colours decorating the walls are so modest in appearance they could easily have been done by Prince Charles himself.
According to Michael Proudlock, the reason Foxtrot Oscar has survived while virtually all of its competitors have gone to the wall is because of its cross-generational appeal. "I've lost count of the number of young people who've come up to me at the bar and told me that their parents had their first date here," he says. "The great thing is, their parents still come here for dinner. We cater for all ages--it's the most unthreatening restaurant in London."
To see Foxtrot Oscar in its full glory, the best time to come is when there's an important race meeting taking place, like the Grand National. At moments like these, a huge crowd gathers round the restaurant's two television sets and the atmosphere is reminiscent of Chelsea football stadium. If you're lucky, you might even spot some old legend like Dai Llewellyn, juggling a pint of iced Kummel in one hand and a mobile phone in the other so he can talk to his bookie and roar on his horse at the same time.
I dropped in on a Monday lunchtime--the Sabbath of the restaurant business--and, to my astonishment, Foxtrot Oscar was doing a roaring trade. Sloanes of all ages trooped up to pay their respects to Michael Proudlock at his usual table, while the jolly manageresses fended off the overtures of various piss-artists at the bar. My dining companion was Kate Spicer, who did a six-month stint at as a waitress here just after leaving university. "I'm not quite sure why," she said, "but I look back on those times as some of the happiest of my life."
Kate had the Soup of the Day and some Wild Boar Sausages, while I opted for the Herring Rows on Toast and a Steak and Kidney Pie. None of it was particularly memorable--"I'm not sure what vegetables have gone in to this," said Kate, gingerly sipping her soup--but it did a decent enough job of soaking up the champagne. Just what the doctor ordered if you're nursing a hangover, which I'm afraid to say I was.
All in all, then, a very likeable restaurant. I don't suppose it will ever win any prizes, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's still around in 2016--and, remember, that's another lifetime in dog years.