Magazine article The Spectator

The Criterion

Magazine article The Spectator

The Criterion

Article excerpt

WHERE do you take a restaurateur for lunch? If you invite him to his own establishment; he'll spend the whole time wanting to straighten the sommelier's bow tie or slip into the kitchen to tell the chef not to put too much cayenne pepper in the prawn cocktail. More embarrassing, he might order your food for you, and you won't be able to explain that you've never been partial to braised pork cheeks. But if you take him to a rival restaurant, it seems rude and he'll be distracted, wondering whether their sticky toffee pudding is better than his.

I had promised to take Rupert Hambro, the owner of Wiltons, to lunch. Wiltons in St James's happens to be one of my favourite restaurants in London. I love watching the generals, art dealers and grandees pile in after `cashing a cheque' in White's club. The few women are fussed over as though they were at the very least a favoured niece or mistress. It's the nearest we come to being allowed into a men's club. The boys josh each other across the tables. They don't feel obliged to order a particularly complicated chicken saltimbocca with sauce gribiche just to keep up with the times. Nicholas Soames always has at least one lobster cocktail and sometimes two, and everyone wants peas and creamy spinach with everything. Newfangled breads are treated with suspicion. They want theirs white and sliced, with lashings of butter, to go with their smoked salmon and oysters.

Rupert solved the dilemma by choosing the Criterion, a galosh's throw away from Wiltons but a completely different kind of establishment. This is the only Marco Pierre White restaurant I hadn't tried. I'm not sure what put me off. It might have been that I was once forced to eat fried spaghetti and chocolate mud pie in its previous incarnation. But it also has something to do with its location. I have an irrational loathing of Piccadilly Circus. For a start I'm frightened of walking through flocks of pigeons. If you don't step in their mess, you're bound to get stuck in some French schoolchild's liquorice-flavoured chewinggum. The statue of Eros reminds me of large matrons wielding syringes, as for years the Circus was the home of the British Airways inoculations shop.

I have the feeling that the Criterion is Marco's least favoured child. Stuck between his extravagant flagship, The Oak Room, and his elegant Mirabelle, it doesn't have quite enough charm or wit to get his undivided attention and has instead been relegated to the status of brasserie.

But I was happy to give it a chance. The receptionist couldn't have been more accommodating. There was no sucking of teeth when I asked for a booking that day. She didn't say: `You can only have a table at 12.15 p.m. or 2.45 p.m.' She didn't even demand a telephone number.

Having picked my way through Piccadilly Circus, I realised that this 125-year-old restaurant, built by Spiers and Pond, the railway caterers, is still rather beautiful. The vast gilt room is decorated in ornate late-Victorian Ottoman style. Veils of curtains flutter in the air conditioning, busty lamp shades are tassled and reflected in smudged mirrors, and the walls are covered in Victorian genre-paintings and tiles.

There should have been velvet-clad men and women draped insouciantly on the chairs, sipping absinthe and wondering half-heartedly about going to an exhibition. But with their mobile phones strapped to their trousers, the other diners looked more like 21-century warriors than fin-desiecle roues. …

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