Piccadilly is ill-served by cafés, unless you consider House of Caviar a cafe. There is a Caffè Nero by St James’s church, which is Wren’s ugliest; either he leaked all his anger into it or bricks simply confounded him. There is a Starbucks by the Wolseley, a Costa across the road and an Eat off Jermyn Street; otherwise there is only Paul, which has good bread, enchanting service and a stupid name. But whimsical French patisserie doesn’t work in St James’s, which is very self-consciously English; it feels like a theme park in sugar. So tourists on a budget must go to Chinatown or, worse, Patisserie Valerie, whose window display is so fantastical it could be wrought by a bulimic Edwardian ghost. Better to eat at Putin’s polonium sushi bar, Itsu.
So the 5th View Restaurant (it’s a café, with another stupid name) on the fifth floor of Waterstones should be wonderful; this is the biggest bookshop in Europe. What are more comforting than books these days, even if the ground-floor gift shop swells greedily toward fiction, like an octopus covered in Paddington Bear stickers? (Don’t fancy a book? Buy something near a book. Buy a pencil case. Buy a mantra. Buy a Peter Rabbit with wheels.) But it isn’t. It is a vacuum that serves food. I was hoping for something with imagination; something worthy of the books. It doesn’t even grope, twitching, for an identity. It is lazier than that.
The shop is an early modernist masterpiece, even if it does look slightly like Robocop’s face. It was built, in 1936, for the menswear brand Simpsons. Its history is grand, its finishings exquisite; when a minor writer (my favourite kind, for they are essential) tossed himself down the staircase to his death, it was a tribute, for who kills themselves in WH Smith? During the war its members’ club was closed to provide baths and beds for soldiers; later, it was the inspiration for Grace Brothers in Are You Being Served? It was sold to Waterstones in 1999 and is now its weirdly named ‘flagship’ shop. One would hope a bookshop would not use euphemism, for words are important, but no. I do not want to dislike any real bookshop because I loathe electronic books; what will happen when the electricity is turned off? So I will say Waterstones Piccadilly is adequate; it is better than the abomination that is Amazon, and worse than Hatchards or Foyles.
The walls of 5th View are pale, the furniture sub-Ikea and badly placed, the lighting terrible; there is an adequate view of Westminster. The menu is rude (‘We follow the one hour, one order policy’), full of homily, which is idiotic here (‘There is always peace in a strong cup of coffee’) and semi-literate; it offers ‘Social Boards for 2 to share’ (barbecue pulled-pork nachos and mini-burgers, which are called ‘Sliders’), ‘Nibbles’ (capitalised) and ‘Sides’. I long to find the writer who dreamed the term ‘sides’ and throw him down the staircase. No restaurant critic would condemn me.
The food, too, is dreadful — why wouldn’t it be? Bruschetta is drowned in balsamic vinegar: it tastes like Virginia Woolf’s self-esteem. A burger appears with cheese and chorizo (they are out of bacon). Chorizo is not a substitute for bacon; the diner should be told. It’s an assault with pig; a James Patterson novel, maybe.
The curious element of the 5th View Restaurant (it’s a café) is photographs of London on the walls: Piccadilly Circus at night, repeated, so it looks like an Athena poster, which maybe it is, rather than art. These are views of London designed for a place that will never see London. I would expect it in a London-themed restaurant in Ohio or Texas or Bahrain; here it is the idiocy of a café that does not know what it is for, and does not care.
5th View, Waterstones, Picadilly, London W1J 9HA, tel: 020 7851 2433.