Once, when I was 9, I got stuck in a loo. I was calm about it, naturally, at least for the first 6 seconds. I spent the remaining 6 minutes freewheeling through all the emotional colours I knew: anger at my little sister, anger at my parents, regret at not finishing my pudding before going to the loo. 'Why didn't you shout?' my mother asked, when she noticed I was missing and came to find me. 'I don't speak French,' I pointed out sensibly.
Things are different now. I have learnt several new things in the intervening 20 years, not least of which is how to properly lock a toilet door. Other things include, but are not limited to: expanding my repertoire of emotional responses to encompass "annoyance at my little sister" and learning to never ever leave the table until I have finished all of my pudding. So, it was in a relaxed and happy state of mind that I set off to have dinner at Sixtyone in South Marylebone. Not only was I almost certain that I would not get locked in a loo, I had been walked from a pre-dinner drink to the very door of the restaurant, which made me feel like a glamorous VIP, or at least a well-monitored functioning alcoholic.
'Very good service here,' my friend texted me, as I walked past the restaurant twice, not realising until later that Sixtyone handily refers to the its street number.
I didn't bother to reply, assuming this was a passive-aggressive way of reminding me that she was already there, and that I was late. It wasn't until the end of our meal, when the waiter brought our coats to the table, and handed my friend a carefully hung floor-length gown (some people have different lives to me), that I realised she had been in earnest.
Sixtyone describes itself as a "neighbourhood restaurant." If this is what neighbourhood restaurants are doing now, I want to move neighbourhoods. I started with fish carpaccio - a plate full of tesselated, gossamer-thin circles of the palest pink, which were dabbed with tiny blobs of avocado paste, and looked almost too beautiful to eat. I did eat, it, however, being hungry and also in a restaurant. My friend, possibly in a bid to prove to me, now that I had "finally arrived" (I was precisely 6 minutes late), that there really was very good service here, ordered the mushroom risotto, which wasn't actually on the menu as a starter at all. Naturally, they were happy to plate up a smaller portion for her, which she described as "delicious, and not suitable for sharing".
The menu at Sixtyone is, in my opinion, the inverse of a neighbourhood restaurant. Instead of offering very simple, unchanging family favourites, such as steak and chips, or mac and cheese, Sixtyone serves seasonal, carefully crafted delicate dishes, such as steamed mackerel with saffron pickles and cardamon yoghurt; or slow-cooked sea bream with grapefruit. Arnaud Stevens is the type of chef who likes to construct his meals, balancing bolder flavours with more discreet tones to create a layered scaffold of taste. Disappointingly, at least for this metaphor, he refuses to scaffold his food on the plates, as some impossibly over-priced restaurants delight in doing. Rather, Sixtyone has bent to neighbourhood conventions, and puts its food on large white plates. (Rumours that they also have bowls have been uncorroborated).
The wine list, as one would expect at the little place just down the road (I have been reliably informed that one of the neighbours is in fact Madonna, though I fear Guy may have taken that house in the divorce) is superb. We were served by their impossibly helpful sommelier, who listened as we explained what type of wine we wanted (my friend: "Nothing too dry, and not over-oaked". me: "delicious") and pointed us un-patronisingly in the right direction. The menu itself, for those who do not go out to dinner to talk endlessly to the wine guy, has recommendations alongside the dishes.
Between mains and pudding my friend popped to the loo, so I spent that 5 minutes staring at the other customers, and trying to eavesdrop. Sixtyone is a large, warmly decorated restaurant, with the type of ceilings that makes one bemoan the lack of child labourers, who previously would, one assumes, have clambered merrily up into their cavernous reaches and kept everything spotless. (Everyone always talks about the chimney sweepers, who must have had a formidable PR team. I'm just trying to open up the conversation).
Perhaps it was sharing these thoughts that led my friend to wave vaguely towards the back of the restaurant when I asked her where the toilets were. Certainly, there was room for interpretation. My own personal interpretation saw me spending the next 5 minutes wandering around into the neighbouring hotel, trying to avoid being mistaken for one of those people who are not guests at all, but merely hoping to pocket as many reception mints as humanly possible. (10, in case you were wondering. I have a very subtle and blending-in type of personality).
'What happened?' my friend asked, when I finally returned to the table. "I got lost," I explained. "Why didn't you ask for help?" It is possible that I haven't worked out quite as many things in the last 20 years as I might have hoped; but a visit to Sixtyone has definitely been one of my most pleasurable lessons.