I hoped that Bronte would be filled with Victorian writers licking ink off their fingers and bitching about Mrs Gaskell being a third-rate hack; but it is not to be. (Do not think I am vulgar. My description is accurate. Wuthering Heights is a rude novel, and Jane Eyre is worse. St John Rivers, its Christian Grey, is surely a Spectator subscriber). It is, instead, a finely wrought and glossy restaurant off Trafalgar Square, designed, I suspect, for advertising executives. It used to be the Strand Dining Rooms but it died and now there’s this.
It is named for Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Bronte. His title, it is believed, was borrowed by Patrick Brunty, the Irish blacksmith’s apprentice who educated himself and came to England to father a literary dynasty by mistake. Patrick was a skilled public relations man and curate; he added a stylish umlaut. The Brontës, of course, have their own homage restaurant in Haworth. It is called the Bronte Balti House, and it features in the Daily Telegraph’s Ten of the Worst Days out in Britain. I thought the Bronte Balti House was OK when I covered the Brontë Death Cult for the Guardian, but I was keen to escape the Parsonage of Passive Aggression and Death, and nowhere else was open. The Brontë Death Cult, which was founded by Mrs Gaskell in an oblivious act of jealousy, is very passive-aggressive, and its shrine is the parsonage, a house that looks like a dead body. What do you call a woman of humble origins who just happens to be a genius when you are not? A sickly moor hag, or witch. I cannot blame Mrs Gaskell for the Bronte Balti; but she would like it. She would love to imprison Charlotte’s memory inside a crap curry house near Bradford, with naan bread: I’ve got you now, corpse!
So Bronte is named for a man no one calls Bronte. It could have been called Nelson, decorated with eye patches and plastic parrots, like a Padshow hell shack; or it could have been called Gaskell, an angry and flouncy tearoom that wrote bad novels and one marvellous, vicious and dishonest biography called The Life of Charlotte Brontë; or it could have been called — and this is my wish — Brunty: Pens, Sex and Potatoes.
All of these would be better than Bronte, which is stylish and curiously formless. It feels pointless: there are many grand cafés in London. Who needs this one, when it is not as good as others, and it has a name that takes three paragraphs to mock?
It is very large, and oddly arranged. There is a colonnade outside, and chairs and tables facing the Strand, which is mad, for who could be happy in a street which is also the triumphal processional of the London street homeless, who congregate at Charing Cross to show their wounds? (-Bronte has established topiary between tables and street, so you can, literally, hide behind a bush. Perhaps Patrick Bateman would like it. I can’t think of anyone else who would). Inside, on many levels, there are dark floors, pale walls and lamps which look like cocktail shakers. The effect is of a cathedral divided into rental flats. Bronte is not formed enough to be coherent and it is not irregular enough to be interesting. It is a mess and, as if it knows it, it serves fusion cuisine.
We sit in the basement, which looks like the interior of the Starship Enterprise, but empty, as if Khan has been and killed them all. The surviving waiter, who is charming–sinister, brings the food: white fish, chicken, squid and chips. It is stylish and soulless. Bronte is an emotional abyss; the very opposite of fiction.
Bronte, 1-3 Strand, London WC2N 5EJ, tel: 020 7930 8855.