Lynne Murphy, a UK-based American linguist, blogged recently about “British words (most) Americans don’t know”—such as pelmet, quango, and bolshy. Many of the words were unfamiliar to me, an American who tries to keep with such things but doesn’t always succeed. (See, for example, my post about tannoy.) But one of them, plaice, not only registered but brought back some amusing memories from my freelance-journalism past.
Via Fish and Kids (Marine Stewardship Council, London)
Lynne writes that plaice “is a kind of flatfish that's common at British fish-and-chip shops. The OED says ‘European flatfish of shallow seas, Pleuronectes platessa (family Pleuronectidae)’, but some other fish (esp. outside the UK) are sometimes called plaice. The name came from French long ago. It shows up in *many* punny shop names”—Our Plaice, The Happy Plaice, Park Plaice, and so on.
My own introduction to plaice came from a different punny restaurant name—possibly the original one. In 1985, a magazine I wrote for, Tables, sent me to London to interview Bob Payton, an American ad-guy-turned restaurateur who was making waves over there with his Chicago-style pizza places, a Chicago Rib Shack, and a seafood restaurant called, yes, Payton Plaice. It was a double pun.
Peyton Place was a bestselling 1956 novel, a 1957 movie starring Lana Turner, a 1961 sequel, and a TV soap opera that aired from 1964 to 1969 and introduced 19-year-old Mia Farrow to viewing audiences (and set off a trend for “Allison”—the name of her character—as a girl’s name). “Peyton Place” became a synonym, or metonym, for “small town with a lot of hanky-panky.”
From my Tables story: Bob Payton with one of the first British waitresses he hired. His jacket was extreme even for the 1980s.
A digression here about Tables, which was published for a niche audience—restaurant servers—and had a single advertiser: Seagram, the multinational liquor conglomerate whose brands included Chivas Regal, Captain Morgan, and The Glenlivet.
Tables had been launched by a couple of University of Tennessee graduates, Phillip Moffitt and Christopher Whittle, who got their start in publishing with some college guides and went on to found 13-30 Corporation, which was based in Knoxville and named for the age range of the target market. Besides Tables, 13-30 published other single-focus magazines (I wrote for at least one other, Young Woman) that you’ve never heard of. What you may have heard of, if you’re a senescent media hound like me, is Moffitt and Whittle’s 1979 acquisition of Esquire magazine, which they ran together until 1986, when they split up their partnership. Moffitt stayed on for another year as editor-in-chief, then sold the magazine to the Hearst Corporation. And then—plot twist!—he moved to Marin County, California, and started the Life Balance Institute to help people find balance based on “spiritual values.” The institute, now called Skillful Change, is still a going concern.
End of digression.
My regular gig at Tables was writing a health column. I had near-carte blanche to pick my topics, with one big taboo: I couldn’t write about alcohol abuse, which was (and is) rampant in the hospitality industry. (Elephant in the room? What elephant?) I usually pitched story ideas, but the idea for the Bob Payton piece came from my editor. I’d never heard of the guy, so I researched him as best I could—no internet to help back then.
I learned that he’d been born in Miami Beach and graduated from the University of North Carolina, where he’d been the drummer in a band called Little David and the Wonders. In 1967 he went into advertising—a natural fit—and wound up in the Chicago office of J. Walter Thompson. When the agency sent him to London, he liked what he saw and made a permanent move, determined to transform what and how Brits ate in restaurants.
Interesting guy! my editor said. Go find out more.
The magazine paid my roundtrip airfare from California to London, and a decent story fee (I recall $1 a word for 3,000 or 3,500 words—average then, sumptuous today, alas). But the expense account didn’t cover food and lodging. Fortunately, my old friend Jane, who ran a concert-booking agency in London, generously offered her well-situated townhouse for several nights, and threw in a jaunt to Porlock Weir, Somerset, as lagniappe. We had a great time.
I remember less about my time with Bob Payton—blame it on jet lag—but the piece I produced evidently was good enough to be the cover story for the June 1986 issue. Tables ran a front-of-book interview with me, which fills in my memory lapses.
“Friedman tracks elusive prey.” The reason for the ridiculous outfit: I was also working as a copywriter at Banana Republic, where I picked up a lot of safari gear that never saw non-urban use.
While “it was relatively easy to get [Payton] to agree to an interview: ‘The man is an absolute publicity hound,’ says Friedman,” he “proved to be an elusive man to track down.” I scheduled an interview, only to learn that Payton would be in the US when I was to be in London. A second appointment “fell through when business called Payton away to his estate in the British countryside.” (Oh, how I wish I’d seen that estate. More about it later.) I do recall finally connecting with him and accompanying him all over London. He was a big guy, 41 at the time, with a lot of energy.
Given how London’s culinary reputation has soared and diversified in the intervening years, it’s boggling to consider that, as I wrote in the article, there was only one American-style restaurant in the city when Payton arrived in 1973: the Hard Rock Café. Payton wanted Brits to have fun when they dined out, the way Americans did, and it was a surprisingly hard sell. Payton Plaice eventually failed—the only one of his restaurants to do so—and his obituary in The Independent misspelled its hard-working name.
I lost touch with Payton after I sent him a copy of the published story, but I did read about his death in a car crash, in 1994. While refreshing my memories for this post I discovered that Independent obit, by Emily Green, which made me wish I’d spent more time in Payton’s orbit. I hadn’t known, for instance, that he was “a working-class Jewish kid” or that “his parents, of Russian extraction, were nicknamed Boogie and Pal.” Like another working-class Jewish kid, Ralph Lauren né Lifshitz, Payton was a head-over-heels Anglophile: Despite being a “fast-food baron” who fit “the loud, literal and litigious stereotype” of a Yank, “he transformed himself into an English country squire, buying shirts from Jermyn Street and riding with the Cottesmore Hunt.”
He was determined to turn himself into landed gentry, Green wrote:
Risking critical derision (which he famously responded to with lawyer’s letters), in 1988 he bought a Grade 1 listed 16th-century pile called Stapleford Park, near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. He then poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into its restoration, hiring Wedgwood, Turnbull & Asser, Crabtree & Evelyn to decorate its rooms. But where Payton respected the expert's taste, he also indulged his own. So guests would also find a papier-mache statue of himself and his dogs, the beloved schnauzer even painted into frescos.
As I said, I wish I’d had a chance to see it. And I’m sorry Payton’s life ended too soon, when he was just 50: He’d have loved fusion food and celebrity chefs and “The Great British Baking Show.”
Then again, I’m sorry there aren’t any niche magazines to send me off to London for a week to trail around after eccentric expats. I miss that life.