Friday, 27 November 2009

The OK Cafe, 77 Piccadilly, Manchester City Centre

"I know you're not going to do a runner," said the man behind the counter as I paid my £4.64 for cottage pie, boiled potatoes, greens and peas. The comment said a lot for the OK Café's clientele, most of whom, it had to be said, sported shell suits, tattoos and an unshaven complexion – and that was just the women!

I liked the idea that I didn't look like the sort of person that 'did a runner' although secretly it has been an ambition of mine for some time. A few years ago I used to be the editor of a magazine in the hotels and fine dining industry and I remember reading a review of one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants in the Saturday Times magazine (penned by Giles Coren) where the bill for his meal was something like £383. Now that's a lot of money and I have often questioned whether such an amount is right, in an ethical and moral sense, when I consider that the OK Café would have cost me under a tenner for two. Alright, I'm sure that Restaurant Gordon Ramsay is not the sort of place that attracts those who like to do runners, but when a restaurant meal for two costs nearly £400 – the price of desirable 'consumer durables' like washing machines and DVD players – one has to question what kind of security measures are in place to prevent people from doing a runner.

It's been a while since I was the editor of that magazine, but I remember that Locanda Locatelli, an excellent restaurant run by an excellent chef (down-to-earth and not pretentious) was located inside a hotel. On one visit I asked where I might find the restrooms and I was directed through a door and found myself in the middle of a bustling hotel reception area. Had I finished my meal I could have just walked out of the hotel front entrance never to be seen again; and this got me thinking. Perhaps we should run a feature where we try to 'do runners' from expensive restaurants just to see how protected they are. The idea was, of course, ruled out by the publisher (far too exciting, far too good, far too controversial and we don't want people actually READING the magazine, do we?) but there were issues surrounding breaking the law that I hadn't really considered.

Having said that, my plan was to work out a 'winning point', a place where we could say we had successfully achieved 'doing a runner' from the restaurants in question. It might have been a distance of 500 yards from the table at which we had been sitting; there were various ideas on the table about that. Anyway, the plan was to reach the winning point and then return and pay the bill – assuming we hadn't already been stopped and carted off to the local nick.

I knew that I couldn't operate alone and would need an accomplice and chose as my partner in crime a PR girl, who will remain nameless. She was definitely up for it (doing a runner!) and we worked out that we would need props – a fake mobile phone and a replica Fendi handbag, perhaps, to leave on the table and give the waiting staff the impression that we had to come back when, in reality, we had scarpered.

With meals costing so much, ie the price of a DVD player – the sort of thing burglars nick from houses – I felt, somewhere deep down that there was almost a moral obligation to have a go at 'doing a runner'. Food should never cost £400, that's plain greed on the part of the restaurateur, no matter what their excuse might be – food is never THAT good – and I should know as I have eaten in some of the best and most expensive restaurants in the UK and the world (but never paid for it, journalists tend not to). In fact if I had to pay for it, I wouldn't, in the same way that I would never buy a Bugatti Veyron, even if I had the money: at the end of the day it's only a car and I'm not going to pay the best part of a million quid just to pose and be poncy.

Anyway, back to doing a runner: it never happened. I even put the idea to the features editor of a well-known lads' mag – they think they're hard, or so I thought: they never returned my call, the cowards. So it never happened and probably never will. I did, however, case a few joints and can offer this advice to anybody who wants to have a go: hotel-based restaurants are the best bet, especially if they don't have their own dedicated entrance. Remember the fake mobile phone and the imitation Fendi bag, go there well turned out with a beautiful woman on your arm, order the lot: starter, main course, a good bottle of wine, dessert and then ask for directions to the restrooms. You can't both get up at the same time, that might arouse suspicions, but then I never got as far as actually organising a caper – just eating one!

Now that was an almighty digression, let's get back to the OK Café in Manchester – it was your typical caff – a mixture of Formica and plastic Gingham tablecloths, there were many copies of The Sun there for customers to read for free and the food was plain and honest. My cottage pie was one of the chef's specials and it only cost £4.65 with a mug of tea thrown in. As I left, leaving the change from a fiver as a tip, I started to wonder how desperate you would have to be to do a runner from the OK Café. According to the chef, it happens a lot.