The restaurants of London (which I review for a magazine) are various and excellent: there are flowers on the fairy food at Dabbous; there is a coffee shop called Attendant in a former public toilet, which I love, but I have a weakness for wordplay. At the top are the restaurants of the tax-efficient playpen that is London for the international rich, and they thrive. Perhaps this is why the ugly flats at One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge are shuttered – are the residents simply dining out?
Nothing in London can yet match the madness of Alain Ducasse’s Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo, which features trees and an ice-ball spouting bottles of Krug like the spines of a plutocratic porcupine – but how long will it be, when such restaurants do so well? Novikov, the Italian-Asian restaurant in Mayfair that manages to fuse two entire continents under one convenient roof, has a turnover of £35m a year; so bloated are the profits, the owner opened the equally opulent Rextail.
The restaurateur Leonid Shutnov will soon open Biblioteka in St James, where he will offer 100 vintages of Château d’Yquem and 80 of Château Mouton Rothschild, should 79 of Château Mouton Rothschild not be enough to slake the thirst of London’s rich. It will be, says the PR guff, “one of the largest licensed premises in central London”, with an interior “inspired by some of the greatest libraries in the world”, if you can imagine anything worse.
Marylebone, an area most notable for its astonishing levels of air pollution, has an “It” restaurant called the Chiltern Firehouse (not be confused with the shape-shifting monster in Stephen King’s It, with its appetite was for human souls) which is so over-subscribed that the Time Out reviewer had to email three times and visit three times in person to get a table. This is the equivalent of the everyman critic embarking on a rubbish variant of the labours of Hercules, in which he has to slash through a forest of celebrities with a giant sword to find Truth in Salad.
The marketing is depraved, coasting along on fake irony and the naked fetishisation of wealth. Fable, a three-storey behemoth on the Holborn Viaduct, promises fairytales, although only an awful – and terribly self-aware – depravity is delivered. There are pages of books pasted on walls, as if these restaurants are the new libraries and fonts of knowledge. We need them in the era of cuts and inequality, but not like this. It also manages to transform Flower Power and Skinny Pornstar into cocktails, when both have suffered enough.
There was even a briefly fashionable restaurant named Dorsia in Kensington, named after the restaurant Patrick Bateman longed for in American Psycho. He could never get a reservation so he murdered prostitutes and tramps; but thankfully the real Dorsia closed down. Irony and ennui can be stretched too tight.
What is grotesque about such places, beyond library-themed chic and the contrast with the important food anxieties of the age (obesity, rising prices and the return of malnutrition), is the way they are considered an advertisement for the recovery and a glory of the city – the trickle-down effect, if you will.
This is bunk, and it underlines so much of the mayor of London’s political philosophy. Standing up for London, he says, to which I say – what kind of London? The London of the 1% of course, which is the only kind he cares for. Where are the critics of this new Edwardiana? Drugged with opulence or working for a media in thrall to the minutiae of luxury, but silent on what created it, and the damage that it does.
Journalists write about the wonders of the Chiltern Firehouse like gibbering fanboys, without noting that the vast majority of Londoners will never eat there – and not because the restaurant is full until autumn; without noting that the homeless sit in the streets outside these palaces in greater numbers than before; and without noting that another noble public building – a Victorian gothic fire station, in the case of the Chiltern Firehouse – has been lost to private hands. That should be enough to choke on.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010