Cafe Monico, as if named by an illiterate playboy, is on Shaftesbury Avenue between The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Les Mis, so if you want to be in an Asperger’s syndrome/-singing French revolutionary restaurant sandwich it is the café for you, and only for you. It is from Soho House, whose quest to make the whole of Britain a crèche-restaurant with table-tennis tables and photo booths for moronic remembrance goes on. There are more Soho House franchises now than Ivy franchises; even Chiswick has one. It is confusing, but if it upsets the media executive class, who must find new ponds to preen and fight in, I do not mind.
Except that Cafe Monico does not work. It aches for refinement but Shaftesbury Avenue is not refined, and Cafe Monico is not wondrous enough to look wondrously odd here; it lacks the charisma to set up shop in Soho and scream. It sits uncomfortably, a dowager mediocrity in a neon street. To work in Shaftesbury Avenue you need more neon, not none at all. Cafe Monico is playing Ibsen to a crowd that needs Rodgers and Hammerstein, and it is not playing well.
It deserves its fate, because it is, essentially, a plagiarist restaurant, the baldest I have seen; and that is why it fails. Its style is stolen, utterly and unsuccessfully, from the cafés of Corbyn and King, who are better at plagiarising themselves than Soho House is. It would have done better to install a table-tennis table and photo booth for its infant customers than copy what others do better, for the Delaunay and the Wolseley are contrived with an obsession that cannot be replicated by mere eyes; someone has really thought about these restaurants, chewed their mouth, maybe wept. Comparing Cafe Monico with the Delaunay is like comparing Cinderella’s castle with Neuschwanstein, or the Venetian in Las Vegas with Venice. The sole joy of Soho House is its ridiculousness, if only it had the humour to acknowledge it, which it doesn’t; and Café Monico is not ridiculous. It is sadder than that.
It is dark and gloomy, dowsed in bronze, dark woods and — what for? — pilasters. There is a void in the ceiling, so from the first floor you can see the bar and its glinting spirits. This is the only thing I like, because it is the only thing that is original. Cafe Monico is very young, but there is a film of dust on the windows and some sadness; as I said, refinement does not work here, because this part of Soho cannot be cleaned; it can only twinkle its bulbs and scrape the pigeon cadavers off the street. The view is of China-town and Costa coffee and tourists buying currency with addled eyes.
And so, because it feels wrong in its bones, Cafe Monico can do nothing right. The service is polite, the food adequate if overpriced, but it does not have what great restaurants have: ease. The customers, who are local workers seduced by the Soho House brand because it practises apartheid (they would not get into the real Soho House) and out-of-towners having treats, look faintly disappointed, as if they have been had by a greedy brand expanding where it should not go, and they can sense it. They are not fools.
We eat from a generic brasserie menu: lobster, lamb chops, scallops. It is average and edible and uninteresting, and I am sorry I came here. But since Cafe Monico is a Frankenstein restaurant, or Franken-restaurant, spliced from stolen body parts, I cannot pity it.
Cafe Monico, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LA, tel: 020 3727 6161.
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