Batman owned the Criterion in The Dark Knight, but could he do anything about British Telecom? Savini at Criterion, an Italian restaurant, waited four months for an internet connection and telephone line as they prepared to launch this year; when it arrived they gave BT what must be the worst review in the history of telecommunications: ‘This wouldn’t happen in Italy.’
It ruined the launch, they said. They couldn’t invite actors, except by pigeon post. And because actors are, in restaurant marketing terms, signposts — and they do look like signposts, specifically Monagasque signposts — no one knew Savini was there. It has no constituency. It is George Galloway, who has inexplicably blocked me on -Twitter.
But I am too gloomy. The Criterion is, from the street, the most beautiful restaurant in London; it walked out of Paris and washed France off its face. Unfortunately — and this is cruelty to plagiarism, pastiche and facade — the street is Piccadilly Circus. So of course no one knows it is there; I doubt anyone ever did, after the creation of the 767 square metre electronic advertising hoarding that manages to make Piccadilly Circus an ideal setting for the apocalypse with pigeons raining from the sky. What Second Empire dining room with neo-Byzantine interiors can compete with ‘Coca-Cola’ written in stupidly large letters and tourists mouthing, ‘Those are really big letters! I’m so glad I came to London’? I lay so much harm at the door of advertising. And now it has cowed the Criterion, and starved it of light, which annoys me, because the suffragettes came here, and loathed men for their oblivious misogyny, and their female acolytes for the same, and then stuffed their faces, which is also what I did.
Restaurants squat in the Criterion, one after the other. They share it, like the tenant waxworks in Madame -Tussaud’s. (Did you know the mayoral body is generic? So we will soon have Sadiq Khan’s head on Boris Johnson’s body as we had Johnson’s head on Ken Livingstone’s body?) Marco Pierre White was here and then investors from Georgia (Stalin’s, not Scarlett O’Hara’s), and now Savini. There is a theatre below, and Lillywhites above, and in the street there are maniacs.
It is rotting beauty, which is my favourite kind; but decline is my favourite stage of empire. This is no longer the dining room of H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle and Winston Churchill— how could it be? It sells spaghetti in packets (not ties, at least) and it is still, in its fourth month, pretending it has just opened, shrapnel from its war with BT, which it lost. It is faintly gold, and vast and, because Savini is an Italian brand, they have covered it in grey when it should be red or blue, or any colour that attracts toddlers. Only seven tables are occupied in a sea of tables; there is an air of torpor and distraction, as if serving expensive Italian food is not its real — or rather, primary — purpose, which is more likely communing with dead pastry chefs. It is the second creepiest restaurant I have ever seen, after the Russian Tea Room in New York City, which had, in its shuttered function room, a 20ft-high glass Russian bear in which lived goldfish.
The food is for giants who love salt. Macaroni with sausage is supposed to be a starter but is immense, something to wade through, a failed quest on a dish: perhaps they think that if they stuff us with carbohydrates, we will not be afraid of the ghosts? Lamb cutlets are fine; risotto is dull; pudding (crème caramel, tiramisu) so ordinary as to not be worth reviewing.
It is a dying restaurant in a room for the dead; and I liked it.
Savini at Criterion, Piccadilly, London W1J 9HP, tel: 020 7930 1459.