late-night foodToby Hambly
Something I think we’ve all experienced at one point or another is that hazy interval after waking in which one has no idea whatsoever if one’s dreams were real. Did I score in the FA Cup final? Is Donald Trump the president? Are we at war with North Korea? Slowly, of course, reality returns with a sigh either of relief or disappointment.

When I woke up the day after visiting La Gratinée I was similarly encumbered. Not even a grainy photograph consoled my doubtful mind. The whole thing seemed too farfetched, too distant and too excellent to have been real. This was not helped by the fact that those around me were treating it like a regular event, making me feel like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day or Jim Carey’s in The Truman Show. The reason for all this fuzziness is very simple – La Gratinée is open between 11pm and 7am.

late-night food 2Now time for a cliché – ‘no, that isn’t a typo’, because I promise that the a.m. and the p.m. are in their rightful places. I was taken by my Oxonian friends living in Lyon along with my travel partner – a local potter featured previously in OX Magazine. The trip to La Gratinée itself was a surprise, part of a long itinerary that kept us going for the weekend – or what the French call, ‘le weekend’. All we knew was that in order to execute this mystery activity, we had to stay up late. My mind was whirring from the moment they told me. Was it a nightclub? Fireworks display? Or something less amenable to my late-night proclivities, like anything involving exercise?

Encouraged by a fair amount of deliberate psychological manipulation on their behalf, I was nervous as we left a lock-in full to the brim with Guinness at 4am (not a cornerstone of French culture, I know, but my friend had been working in an Irish pub). We arrived and alas, no loud noises, no frights and to my greatest relief, no exercise. Instead we were standing in front of one of the most unassuming restaurant frontages I’ve seen in my short time on earth.

The first thing to note (apart from the fact that everywhere around you is firmly closed and that the queue out of the door represents the only evidence of humanity for a few hundred yards) is that there is a doorman controlling entry. He functioned as a sort of maitre d’ as he periodically leaned in to ask the chef how many could be fit in. In retrospect, the reason for this is clear. This is not a restaurant so much as a private dinner club – a theory further supported by the obligation, upon entry, to buy a membership card (I still have mine as a memento, acting like a culinary version of the totems in the film Inception). This must evade some sort of licensing regulations, and thank God for that evasion.

“Quatre? Ça marche?” he exclaimed. “Oui,” came the reply – we were in. The scene inside was, despite what the clock said, a normal restaurant setting. Humble décor and simple furnishings surround a small open kitchen with raised bar seating on its border. The four seats previously declared to have been available were at this bar – front row seats. And what a show. Squint your eyes and you’d see only a flurry of limbs, pans, knives and beef. Because, despite being named for the regional favourite dish ‘gratin’, the specialty here is steak and chips. Now, remember that it is four in the morning, we’re at the giddy, bloated – but not quite drunk – stage of the night, and now in front of me is a bright faced, ruthlessly efficient chef just waiting to cook me a steak. Rarely in life do the stars align so perfectly but here, your humble correspondent found himself speechless.

There were three staff, including the aforementioned whirlwind of a chef. I deduced in my less than Sherlock-like state that two of them were most likely a couple – even if not, they exuded a certain nurturing aura that could simply have been their Lyonnais sensibility. You have the choice of an array of cuts of beef, increasing in price and weight and quality of cut. You then choose a sauce and side to accompany the main event. I went for a sauce made from the local St Marcellin cheese – a soft, mild and creamy cow’s cheese that stood up to the rest of the plate without dominating it. On its side I chose orthodox crispy salty frites though my comrades opted for the gratin. The wine list wasn’t prohibitively expensive, such that a carafe of red between my skint self and three thrifty chums didn’t break the bank.

So far, you might be wondering why I’m making such a fuss about a steak and chips restaurant in France. Next I’ll be falling over backwards about a Bratwurst in Berlin or Paella in Pamplona. It’s not exactly headline-grabbing stuff, I’ll freely admit, but the character of the food placed in front of me, despite lacking the refinement that would usually set a menu apart, seemed to intimate a certain respect. The flavours were strong and satisfying, the presentation begged you to eat and not to tweet, and the service came from people that understood, without judgement, that being tipsy at 4am should not preclude a real plate of food. The effect was quite overwhelming and it got me thinking.

Normally (and here I speak from experience) hospitality staff and their customers are anything but allies in the wee hours. Picture the queue for a drink at a club, the mêlée for a taxi or the scrum for a doner – none of these fill you with faith in the human condition or in the capacity for any form of decorum once the sun goes down and blood-alcohol levels rise. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Indeed, in the UK’s larger cities there are plenty of places that do what La Gratinée executes so perfectly, but the practice should be more widespread.

Speaking again from a degree of experience, to finish a shift at one or two in the morning knowing that your only options for a feed come from vans or neon-lit dives makes the job worse and weakens one’s loyalty to the industry. To have a place to convene, to unwind and, most importantly, to eat proper food, would make the world of difference. There is a chasm between British drinking habits and those of our continental cousins. I believe this could be addressed if we had more places serving proper sit-down, late-night food. It could take pressure off the streets and off our already-stretched emergency services. It could start to dilute the culture of binge drinking and cheesy chips. We ought to manifest a little bit more respect for late-night culture and as we might find in the ordinary course of things – this starts with a hot square meal.

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