Hemingways: Haslemere does modern hospitality

The modern hospitality industry is fascinating. Naturally, it is plagued by the post-modern: Tesco’s sort of went under cover to launch their Harris + Hoole chain of designedly uncorporate coffee shops, and they are probably quite nice. But they are unlikely to thrill the way Hemingways of Haslemere does.

This is a new mid-market terrain, and it makes one yearn for the old greasy spoon and even – weird to say – the Happy Eater of yore, or even the Starbucks of today. I mean: there was an honesty to them all, in their different ways.

Some corporates aren’t tainted by the corporate: Raymond Blanc can come across as a decent cove who happens to have venues in your neighbourhood. But he does it awfully well: his Blanc in Covent Garden is that brilliant notch and price-point above, say, a Bella Italia and just below Boudin Blanc in Shepherd Market. Like Boudin Blanc, Blanc reminds you of how much you wanted France to be good at the restaurants Inspector and Mrs Maigret would have gone to. But it is also aimed at an international market: at the Anglosphere. It is aimed at people who aren’t French, and who don’t want to sneer and be sneered. We don’t want to be assumed to be know-all,s nor numpties. Difficult stuff this: nowadays, we want to be valued. But we especially don’t want to see staff grovel at the next table but be dismissive of us.

The trick with the mid-market is the menu, the decor and the staff. The last is the most tricky, I imagine, to think through and to manage. Ottolenghi’s brilliant NOPI has the inventive, refined, Levantine food you’d expect. The room is OK, and the bar-places properly buzzy. The surprise, maybe, is the smoothly friendly but cool service: I think of it as high-end Antipodean, though I first came across it twenty years ago in New York and Seattle. The funky, the PC, the classless, the knowing, the obliging, all are combined to produce something which is in its own way a little intimidating. The key is that one is offered a lot of apparent friendliness, but it is miles short of intimate or even personal. It’s very clever and very seductive by being a low key challenge and in passing it – by holding one’s own friendly coolness – if one thinks one has – one allows oneself a little self-congratulation.

All this is by way of a run-up to Hemingways, a coffee shop which becomes a wine bar in the evening. It is, sort of, the kind of place one might expect to find in London. I am thinking of the brilliant Pimlico Fresh (late, D K’s) on Wilton Road, with lovely food and a faux-artisinal – big kitchen tables, etc – decor. Such spots are in a tradition, and update it: decent English market towns got lucky with Italian cafes, such as Ascari’s in Hereford. Some cathedrals produce good ecclesiastical eateries. (Chichester has one – and a couple of good medieval cafe-conversions too.)

But Hemnigways takes everything to a higher level, and not least by not being self-conscious. Surprisingly dark, it has clever lighting. So it’s intimate and even confessional. It’s quite spacious: one could arrange things so as to speak intimately. There are tables of every sort, allowing for every sort of party. Its decor is buddhist-eclectic: almost careless but at the same time clever. It has cakes under old-fashioned plastic bubbles, as in Brief Encounter.  Indeed, the genius of the place may be that you can feel yourself to be in an English tea room, but one that has shed its inhibitions. You can have a bacon sandwich on white or panini. The muzak, amazingly, works: groovy, not obviously generic, not obtrusive.

I hazard a guess that this is a place whose management and staff is so richly and deeply middle class, so confident of their bohemian edges, that it can afford to stray toward the greasy spoon and know that it was never likely to lose touch with its public school tuck shop. I dread saying this in case anyone might be put off: this place would only alienate the very insecure, unless it was a person who had never been anywhere at all or who had been everywhere and expected to shelter behind vulgar expense. The service is friendly and brisk, but it is also nicely respectful. I mean that there is no, “Hi, guys, how are you today” going on.

The customers matter a lot to Hemingways. I overheard one pair of women (quite Brief Encounter, as channelled by Victoria Wood) discuss their divorces, and it was one part emotion and two-parts house-values. I rather felt for the husbands but also warmed to these old-bags in the making. At another table, one of those slightly out of control, rather loud mothers, surfed the increasing volume of her toddler bratettes. The scatter cushions of the pews ended up on the floor, which was too clean for it to matter. But it would have been – weirdly – quite out of place to get all Tyler Brûlé about it. Hemingways is not so much child-tolerant, as mildly disorder-tolerant.  At other tables, lone men – Haslemere’s writers or painters, one imagined, vaguely – read newspapers. Groups came in as soon as others went.

So the genius of Hemingways may be Haslemere’s. This may be where London’s better spawn comes when it wants to live in the country, and it accepts being well-off and at the same time properly rustic.  Indeed, however rich it is, it understands that there is a grain of the really rural still around, and if that dimension is neither smart nor rich, well, that may be why it was worth seeking out. So the one thing no-one can afford is side. Isn’t that peculiar? Hemingway’s produces a very good backdrop for a snack. One could show-off in it. But only a bit. This would not be the place to attempt style-fascism. One could shrug into the place in a gloom and not bother to hoist a smile. Or celebrate almost anything.

I hope I have done it justice.

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Publication date

10 January 2013


Mind & body