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Dec. 2 1998 3:30 AM


       I am trying to get myself a job as a restaurant critic because it is now too expensive to go out for a meal in "Cool Britannia" unless somebody else is paying. Naturally, every other journalist in the country wants to be a restaurant critic too, and for the same reason. But I have had at least some success by persuading one newspaper, the Independent on Sunday, to give me a try, albeit on a noncommittal basis. I know next to nothing about cooking, but in Fleet Street that is not seen as a serious disadvantage. The fact is that, although London now considers itself one of the gastronomic capitals of the world, the British are still fundamentally uninterested in food. Restaurant criticism is considered a branch of the entertainment industry and is usually entrusted to journalists with a reputation for being amusing.
       I'm doing my best. On my first assignment to write about a grand new restaurant called Morton's in Berkeley Square, I dissected the clientele and made fun of the French waiters without saying a lot about the food. This went down sufficiently well with the paper for it to give me a second assignment; and on its instructions I went last night to a newly opened restaurant called Lanes in the Four Seasons Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, taking with me a friend who knows a lot about cookery, hoping she might endow my article with a semblance of culinary expertise.
       I haven't written the piece yet, but it will not be very favorable. There is usually something rather depressing about restaurants in hotels, and this one was especially grim. This wasn't the fault of the waiters, who were both friendly and efficient, as well as being Italian, which I like. (Every restaurant I go to seems to be under the control of some national mafia or other.) Despite the fact that they had their first names pinned to their breast pockets on brass plaques, they managed to be quite jolly and informal. Even the food was fairly good, if a little boring and bland.
       No, the problem was the décor and the clientele. The Four Seasons Hotel has been done up with the kind of heavy opulence that I assume was intended to appeal to the rich Arabs in whom London abounds; but there were no Arabs in the restaurant at all. The diners were nearly all elderly Caucasian gentlemen who looked as if they might have been Americans staying in the hotel or perhaps British businessmen on corporate expenses. Anyway, they were not the kind of customers that a "hot" restaurant wants to attract.
       And the Four Season suffers from a problem that afflicts practically all modern luxury hotels in London, which is that they seem to be modeled on American ones but fail to achieve any of their glamour or exuberance. The Metropolitan Hotel opposite the Four Seasons, which houses London's version of the celebrated Nobu restaurants of Los Angeles and New York City, is done up in the minimalist style of, say, the Royalton in New York City but seems by comparison rather poky and mean; while the Four Seasons itself has the shiny marble floors and glass sculptures that one associates with mainstream American hotels but is wholly lacking in festive feeling.
       The idea that the British are now "cool" is a PR-generated fantasy, and certainly we are much better when we are not trying to be. But, alas, our traditions are under attack from every direction. The latest target is the traditional British pub, following a judicial decision that a new giant bar in the lively Covent Garden district of London should be granted an alcohol license only on condition that its customers are served their drinks sitting down. The theory is that people who stand up when they drink get more aggressive than those who are seated and tend to start punching each other at closing time.
       This is not because they get drunker standing up. Alcohol is processed at the same metabolic rate by people in any position, even standing on their heads. No, the trend toward seated-only drinking has its roots in psychology. Police in Yorkshire, in the north of England, who have been urging the local licensing authorities to adopt the practice, say that "vertical pubs" generate violence because drinkers often have to jostle for space at the bar. Maybe they are right, but the trend is depressing for those millions of British men who remain attached to the old class-divided, male-oriented culture of standing with their mates and taking turns at the bar to order rounds of beer.

Alexander Chancellor writes "International Papers" for Slate.