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Local restaurants have it tough.
They usually get to see you when you’re too tired to cook or just want a quick meal.
It’s their flashy cousins in the West End, or the really upmarket places like Chez Bruce, that entertain you when you’re dressed up and looking to celebrate.
That creates a problem.
Local eateries can’t charge too much or you won’t go, but they have to keep their offerings fresh and exciting enough so that you *want* to go.
For the chains, the Pizza Express’ and the like, they get round this with cookie cutter menus and aggressive offers but for the local independent, with their much higher cost base, it’s a harder life.
So when we find a local restaurant that gets most of it right, it’s something that should be celebrated and supported. If we don’t, we’ll wake up one day and it’ll have morphed into yet another clone cafe that seem to have spread like knotweed across our highstreets.
Ben’s Canteen, on St John’s Hill, does get most of it right.
It’s location has hosted a few bars in it’s time. I remember when it was the Quarry Bar and the Blue Bar, but as opposed it’s ancestors offering mainly wine and beer, Ben’s Canteen have gone for a full food offering.
It feels closest in atmosphere to the old Lavender on Lavender Hill, although the lighting is harsher. That didn’t really matter, however, because when we walked through the door we were greeted with a beaming smile from a waitress who appeared genuinely pleased to see us.
With welcomes like that it isn’t surprising that they have a bunch of loyal fans and the night we visited a succession of customers were on first name terms with the staff.
The canteen theme is followed throughout with large chalkboards advertising specials and cans containing cutlery and napkins plonked on bare tables.
It being a Friday night the waitress gently suggested the “Fizzy Friday” promotion. Whilst she was pouring Mr NVN’s pint of lager, and my five pound prosecco, we just enjoyed the laid back atmosphere surrounded by a buzzy St John’s Hill crowd.
Then we came to order and so reached the only disappointment of the evening.
It’s not a big let down but it is the difference between Ben’s being a great local and a brilliant local.
I know that Ramsay et al have been lecturing restaurants for year’s to keep their menu’s simple but in this case it’s just a bit too limited.
The starters on offer were scotch eggs (veggy and non-veggy), mini-cheese burgers, potted ham, prawns, soup or jerk chicken.
For the meat-eaters this was OK but as a someone who doesn’t really do red meat I was a bit stumped. Ben’s work hard to source local ingredients, and I know this can limit availability, but I wasn’t in the mood for seafood so really had to opt for the jerk chicken.
Don’t get me wrong, my starter was delicious. But part of the ritual of eating out, the breaking of bread with friends, is the fun of choosing. I like lingering over the menu and weighing up the choices and I just couldn’t linger.
Mr NVN plumped for the ham followed by a steak both of which were presented with little fuss, letting the quality of the ingredients do the talking. They looked great, fresh meaty ingredients that oozed taste and the accompanying deep pile of chips, a few of which I stole, had been fried beautifully in really hot fat. Wine wise the menu had a pretty broad range, an ironic contrast to my food choices, our Merlot was both good value and easily up to the job of dealing with Mr NVN’s meat feast.
We skipped desserts but only because we were happy to linger over coffee and the rest of the wine whilst watching the St John’s Hill world go by.
Ben’s Canteen is a great local.
A few more choices on the menu and it would be a brilliant local, but don’t let that put you off, even as it is, I’d love to have it at the end of my road.
Ben’s Canteen, http://benscanteen.com, 140 St John’s Hill, SW11 1SL
Food: “almost 4″/5