Today, in a flagrant contravention of popular advice, I met one of my idols. Though not, to most, a household name, Virginia Bates - owner of a legendary, eponymous vintage clothing boutique on Portland Road, high priestess of British fashion, fairy godmother to generations of designers (John Galliano is a bosom pal), actress and charity fundraiser - is someone who has always held a certain magic for me; her semi-regular blog postings on vogue.com are a delicious insight into the magical world she inhabits of seemingly endless parties, fundraisers, art happenings and opening nights.
Virginia has been a fixture of the fashionable London scene throughout the last five decades, through the Swinging Sixties and Cool Britannia via the Greed Is Good Eighties to the Credit Crunch Noughties. Virginia is a true one-of-a-kind; inimitable, improbable, unique, the very embodiment of the kind of person that were she not to exist - heaven forfend - we would have to invent her. As will no doubt be clear, I absolutely adore Virginia Bates, and today - thanks to it having transpired that we have a wonderful mutual friend, who set it up - Virginia Bates and I had brunch.
There could only be one venue for this auspicious occasion. Directly opposite Virginia's shop on Portland Road stands Julie's, the famous neighbourhood restaurant beloved of well-heeled locals and visiting A-Listers alike and which has been feeding both all day and night for 40 years. Yes, you read right - four-zero, making it arguably as much of a London institution as Virginia herself; something of a restaurant idol if you like.
It's an incredible place, sprawling out over several floors and multiple rooms, each entirely different from the others, one Moorish in feel, another Balearic, one casual and cafe-ish, another formal and haute; you could breakfast, brunch, lunch, dine and sup here every day for a week and never feel that you were in the same place twice. It wasn't always thus; the original lounge-y basement space which Virginia vividly described for me evoked images of the Kit-Kat Club, presided over as it was by 'a very gay former ballet dancer' and having the feel 'of having accidentally stumbled into someone's living room'. There's still a very homely feel about Julie's today, at least in the part in which we were seated, which I'm sure must contribute in no small part to its local appeal.
One criticism that's been leveled at Julie's by some reviewers is that the pricing of the food bears little relation to the quality and indeed quantity of it, and I must admit that when I looked over the menu online during my preliminary research (yes, I do do my homework believe it or not) the prices struck me as being rather steep. For two very good reasons however I'm not able to contribute to this particular discussion: for one, we ordered from the brunch menu all of which appeared to be fairly priced (for W11 at least) and for another, the bill - whatever it came to I couldn't tell you - was unexpectedly and very generously taken care of by Virginia's (and now, I like to think, my) pal Rod. Pure class.
Everything that came to the table was excellent; my smoked salmon and scrambled eggs was almost as good as I make it at home (in my not-so-humble opinion), the full English being enjoyed by Rod and our gorgeous friend Chris appeared to be all present and correct and very attractively plated, and Virginia thoroughly liked her eggs and bacon. Toast was hot and crispy, butter soft and plentiful, the preserves superb (Bonne Maman no less) and the coffee strong, aromatic and very freshly roasted. Service was quick, courteous and unobtrusive - whether this was because of Virginia's status as local royalty or the norm I'd not know, but I'd err towards the latter.
Most delicious of all however was the conversation; there was so much that I wanted to talk about with Virginia that we were only ever going to make the merest scratch on the surface, but I still enjoyed a good couple of hours of the most wonderful anecdotes, reminiscences and gossip. Madame Bates (as her invitation to the Dior Haute Couture show is invariably engraved) however was not the only fascinating figure at the table; Rod regaled us with accounts of a very high-profile wedding he had attended recently as well as the opening night at Galvin La Chapelle, while Chris had heart-warming tales of his return to good health after a prolonged period otherwise and of a fledgling new romance far sweeter than anything on the pudding menu.
All was rounded off with a trip across the road to the shop, where Virginia relived for us the marvellous story of when she met one of her idols, a certain Miss Barbra Streisand. That meeting, too, ended happily; far from disappointing her, Barbra was everything Virginia had ever wanted her to be and more. I left feeling exactly the same about Virginia.
Dear Reader, I'm sorry; this is a pitiful excuse for a restaurant review. I've told you barely anything about Julie's and far more than you could ever possibly be interested in hearing about what was a very special moment for me but in which you I expect could not fail to be interested less. Of whether Julie's is good or bad, over- or fairly-priced, worth a visit or not, I am probably not qualified to judge. All I can say is this: my experience of Julie's was entirely and only positive, and that it has stayed in business - not to mention in the same hands - for four decades must surely be an indicator that its fans far, far outweigh its vocal online detractors.
Try it for yourself and let me know what you think, and if you happen to pop into the heavenly vintage clothes emporium across the way, tell its gorgeous, vital, effervescent owner that her #1 Fan sends his love.
Julie's Restaurant & Bar, 135 Portland Road, London W11 4LW Tel: 020 7229 8331 http://www.juliesrestaurant.com/