T-BONES AND SYMPATHY

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On becoming a father, Laurence Earle formed the Dads’ Club, to eat out and chew the fat. He tells the tale and rates the restaurants...

When I tell people that for the past ten years I have belonged to an exclusive, all-male dining club of London-based friends, most of whom have known each other since childhood, and all of whom attended well-known English universities, I know what they are thinking. And it’s not good. There’s a look they get—a look that says: what, like the Bullingdon? Tailcoats and broken glass? Bankers?

But it isn’t like that. Let me explain.

Like so many great plans, it started with a curry. Six months after my son was born, I met an old university friend, M, another newish father—a publisher, not a banker—for dinner at Malabar in Notting Hill. One of the first places to take a modern, even minimalist approach to Indian food, Malabar was a staple of west-London life. We had celebrated birthdays there; taken girlfriends and, later, wives there; toasted good news with sparkling Omar Khayyam there. We had even seen our mutual hero, Elvis Costello, pop in for a takeaway. But it was all a long time ago.

This was the first time either of us had been out in months. (The supermarket and the baby-aisle at the chemist’s don’t count.) Not that we were complaining. M and I were 21st-century fathers, would-be parental paragons, committed to cheerful nappy-changing, stalwart through sleepless nights. Time was when real men didn’t turn up for their children’s births, let alone read Gina Ford. But not any more. Oh no. Still—we agreed over prawn philouries and the tandoori mixed grill—fatherhood had changed our lives; almost, but not quite entirely for the good. Some things had gone missing—and one of the first things to go had been dinners, like this, with old friends.

Suddenly, it became clear—between the first and second bottle of fizz—that even modern dads need a break now and then.

The next month, at Joe Allen in Covent Garden, two became four. We’d known J and P—manager of a charity and owner of a recording studio, still no tailcoats—for 20 years. Now they too had children. And they too admitted to occasionally feeling adrift on an ocean of parental responsibility. We agreed we could all do with rescuing from time to time.

And so the Dads’ Club was born. The rules were simple. We would meet on the last Thursday of each month. We would avoid anywhere too expensive. And we would never go anywhere twice—a rule broken only once, when the club succumbed to an urge to check if the crisp pork belly at Fino on Charlotte Street (Dads’ Club rating: 17/20) really was that astonishing. It was.

Over the years we’ve travelled the world, without going farther than a taxi-ride home. We’ve tried tacos in Bethnal Green (Green and Red; 11/20) and blinis on Gloucester Road (Wodka; 12/20). We’ve gone Far Eastern in Hoxton (Viet Grill; 14/20) and Szechuan in the City (My Old Place; 13/20). We’ve chomped T-bone in W14 (Popeseye; 12/20) and supped with trannies in Soho (21 Romilly Street; 16/20). We’ve eaten more Italian than you could shake a salame di cinghiale at (Tinello in Pimlico, Latium near Selfridges, and Como Lario in Chelsea—all 17/20—spring to mind). There have even been attempts to branch out: an evening cookery class, though it was hard not to giggle, and we soon retreated to the pub (3/20).

Along the way, our numbers have grown—four became six when S1 and S2, an advertising director and a digital marketer, joined us four years ago. Six seems about right. Any more and you wouldn’t be able to hear yourself think: conversation would splinter; we would become not one group but two or three—and that’s important. For what has become clear is that it’s not about the food. Or at least, not just about the food. At the risk of sounding all “Eat, Pray, Love”, it’s the six people around the table who really count.

There have been serious matters to discuss. One of us has a daughter with a disability; two of us no longer live full-time with our children; one of us was unemployed for a year—these are big subjects. When my mother developed cancer, three years ago, I walked down Queensway to Le Café Anglais (15/20) in a daze. But the support and the friendship I received over the following months—two of the Dads had been through something similar—helped me at a desperate time.

When we started we were young. Well, relatively. Ten years on, we’re deep into our 40s. Our children are growing up. J’s daughter is now at the same university that J and I went to a quarter-century ago. Makes you think. Then, of course, there’s football, music, travel and, er, football to talk about. Chelsea have had eight different managers since 2002. The past ten years haven’t all been easy, you know.

Did we have Dads’ Club in lieu of a mid-life crisis? And does that explain why our partners have been so strangely encouraging? I asked around.

According to my anonymous survey (thanks, Maria): it gets us out of the house, it doesn’t involve infidelity—waitresses’ sweet-talk aside—and you can eat a lot of tapas for the price of a Harley Davidson. Yes, it’s ironic that the male reaction to new fatherhood is to organise a regular boys’ night out while the women mind the babies. But don’t women have support networks too? Isn’t that what book clubs are for?

I’d say we’ve learned a lot, talked a lot, grown a lot; we’ve certainly eaten a lot. I am 15-17% fatter. (Though I’m still not a banker, something about which my wife may have mixed feelings.) Fish stocks have been eroded. Pigs now fear for their bellies. And top scientists estimate that if you laid the breadsticks we’ve eaten end to end, they’d reach the moon.

So, have our appetites been sated?

The other night, at our latest discovery, the wilfully and wonderfully eccentric Brunswick House Café in Vauxhall (17/20), S1 told us about the pills he’s taking to ease the pain in his joints. To be honest, I was reading the menu (deep-fried pig’s head, smoked eel with rhubarb, lamb chop, veal rosette) and only half-listening. But even I could tell this may all go on for some time. Maybe for ever? 

Laurence Earle is executive editor of the Independent on Sunday and editor of its New Review magazine

Illustration Pete Gamlen