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Brighton Beach Memoir

Last fall I bought one of those super-trendy Moncler puff jackets. This will really wow the folks, I remember thinking as I inserted myself into this somewhat age-inappropriate garment and hopped onto the platform at Brighton Station. I was home for the holidays in style, or so I thought. Later that same day: Terry Doonan and I are taking a wind-lashed constitutional along the Brighton Esplanade. Terry, an 82-year-old World War II vet, is my father. I have called him Terry for as long as I can remember. I was originally motivated to do this by a desire to limit the scope of his parental authority. Now I call him Terry because I think of him as a good friend.

"Nice jacket," says Terry.

"Isn't it just?" I reply, affecting a couple of smug Zoolander modeling poses.

SPLAT! A direct hit. Half a gallon of seagull poop.

"They say it's lucky!" says Terry, with undisguised amusement. After cleaning my jacket with paper napkins cadged from a fish-and-chips shop, I toss my unsalvageable cashmere scarf into the nearest trash bin. Seagull poop and cashmere. What a perfect metaphor for Brighton—the ultimate combination of elegance and grunge!

Like an aging socialite who has done something ever so slightly common, Brighton has, and always has had, a high-low chic. This city has been a louche getaway ever since the Prince Regent (later George IV) and his mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert, were cavorting round the Royal Pavilion two centuries ago. Clandestine shenanigans are as much part of the Brighton landscape as the dreamy terraces of white Regency town houses that line the seafront. The doilies-and-scones gentility normally associated with British south-coast resorts such as Bournemouth and Worthing is totally missing from Brighton. In 1920, when T. S. Eliot was looking to inject a bit of moral decay into his masterwork, The Waste Land, he didn't have to look further than Brighton. Even as a 16-year-old schoolboy I understood that, when the unshaven Mr. Eugenides asks the protagonist "To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel / Followed by a weekend at the Metropole," he means the Hilton Brighton Metropole. A bit of slap 'n' tickle. A bit of hanky-panky. Playwright John Osborne said he could never have lunch in Brighton "without wanting to take a woman to bed in the afternoon." Keith Waterhouse, another Brit scribe, went further: he said that Brighton looks like a town that is "helping the police with their enquiries"—an age-old tabloid euphemism suggesting that the unsavory person in question is guilty of every crime under the sun and will probably burn in hell forever.

My visits to Brighton are never unsavory. They are, in fact, quite relentlessly savory. Literally. This is due to the fact that I spend the majority of my recreational time gormandizing with Terry Doonan. Having both been raised in the grim pre-gourmet Britain of bubble and squeak, we are anxious to take advantage of the full-throttle Nigella-ization of the Brighton food scene.

Terry's sardonic view of contemporary Britain makes him a stimulating dining companion. He grew up poor in Cardiff, then at 15 ran off and joined the Royal Air Force. After World War II and for the next 40 years, he worked for the BBC in the news department, monitoring Radio Moscow throughout the Cold War and beyond. His gritty journalistic background gives him carte blanche to say things like "What the bloody hell is truffle foam!" wherever and whenever he feels like it. After taking the red-eye from New York, it is my custom to drag Terry to the Real Eating Company, where fresh ingredients are slapped together with a Jamie Oliver-ian laissez-faire behind a gorgeous white Art Nouveau façade. Terry likes to linger over the fish cakes (providing, of course, that the waitress can secure some kind of cushion for his bum, which is bonier than of yore and dislikes being plonked on the ultra-groovy Bauhaus seats). I order the risotto, which the chef obligingly prepares sans beurre. "Fifty-five years old and worrying about your cholesterol! How the hell did that happen?" Terry says.

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