The last time I reviewed a restaurant in Selfridges, a PR man rang up to ask what he could do to change my opinion of Selfridges. Don’t worry, I told him, Spectator readers don’t go to Selfridges to sit in a fake Cornish fishing village, because they are too busy eating the remnants of the Labour party. And they don’t care about shopping. You don’t dress a Spectator reader. You upholster it.
I felt guilty about mocking the stupid fake Cornish fishing village so I avoided the next themed restaurant in Selfridges, which was a fake forest on the roof (‘inspired by an autumnal forest’… because who can be bothered to go to a real forest if they even still exist?). But I had to review the revamped salt beef bar in the food hall. I love the Selfridges food hall, because it seems to be a fifth columnist at war with the rest of the shop. In most of Selfridges — ‘evil Selfridges’ — it is advisable to weigh the same as a chihuahua so as to fit into the clothes, or to be very beautiful, so you do not feel outclassed by a handbag that is marginally more attractive than you are, and yet still costs £3,000. In the food hall — or ‘good Selfridges’ — however, you can imagine you are participating in a Eurovision Song Contest for the obese, because they sell Indian and Italian and French and Jewish cuisine. (I am being polite calling it cuisine; it is, salt beef aside, another biblical Jewish curse.)
Historically Selfridges has always served the best salt beef in central London — despite everything I have already said, this still sounds like an astonishing cognitive dissonance — at the Brass Rail. I have only had better at Katz’s Deli in New York, which still features a sign saying, ‘Send a salami to your boy in the army’ and where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. Now it has added to what anti-Semites will call the Judification of central London by selling a Friday night dinner in a box for the lonely Jew, and fish balls for the Jew who isn’t lonely yet but wishes to be. It also does authentic challah bread, due, I think, to the large Jewish diaspora in Regent’s Park, who will happily eat lobster but will not accept imposter challah bread, because Jews screwing themselves over is not the same thing as non-Jews screwing you over.
The Brass Rail is a white box, with red seats, screened off with brass rails; inside it, Jewish men are hiding, as is usual, but all is not well here. It used to be that you ordered from a pair of men slicing great hot damp pieces of beef or tongue onto white or rye bread, collected your potato salad, paid, added mustard and pickle, and ate your feelings. Now you obtain a number, pay, get a ticket and ask a solitary man to process your order; and because the kind of people who travel for salt beef are not paying attention to their surroundings, because they are thinking about salt beef, it does not work.
Few people manage to obtain a number; when they arrive at the salt beef they have to return for the number. This is all vexing — the more so, I suspect, for being an echo of the typical customer’s relationship with his mother, in which love, which we will here call ‘salt beef’, is sometimes withheld to procure leverage. (If you are not Jewish, substitute ‘tuck box’ or ‘acreage’ for ‘salt beef’). The potato salad, meanwhile, is over-chilled, over-spiced and inedible; the salt beef, though tired at 5 p.m., holds up.
So, PR man, if you want to change my opinion of Selfridges — and in this case I wish you would — save the Brass Rail!
The Brass Rail, Selfridges, Oxford St, London W1A 1AB, tel: 020 7318 3115.