Caffè Concerto is a chain of Italian cafés sprouting, lividly, across London and the world. There is one on Piccadilly, one on Regent Street, and one on the Haymarket. There is one in Birmingham, and one in Westfield. (The precise address is an ungaudy unit 2000a, but presumably it is hidden behind florist-ry). There is one in Qatar. There is one in Saudi Arabia. There isn’t one in Venice, although the website has a photograph of Venice. It’s too Venetian for Venice.
The style is very Italian, in that it is a combination of great style and no style at all. (Not bad style. Just an absence, something forgotten or dropped.) It is a homage to the Italian custom of scrubbing your front step in a full-length fur coat. Or climbing a mountain in five-inch heels, which I have actually seen. That is, it looks like a mop and bucket inside a Caravaggio painting, or an Italian graveyard, and very happy with itself.
I am in the Haymarket branch, close to Eros and the Angus Steakhouse and the statue of dancing horses. The building is pale cream Edwardian pomposity — the architecture that summoned Brexit? — but everything English ends there. It’s very bright and cluttered, and almost transparent, the better to let tourists blow in and out. The walls are dark wood, as in Venice, the floors mottled, as in Venice, the chairs and tables are cheap wood, as in Venice. Flowers — white roses, mostly — are squeezed into the gaps. All that is missing is water, and death.
In the window are the famous cakes. They look like the hats in My Fair Lady, and they are grass green or blood red or ice white. They are so fantastical they barely look real, and I want to lie face down in them and wait for a deal.
The menu, meanwhile, is a cruise ship’s menu, and enormous. It is designed to please anyone walking through central London the winter before Brexit; that is, it is a menu for people who are cold. It offers waffles, omelettes, cream teas, salads, a cheese platter — how I love the word ‘platter’, I wish it were analysed in Mad Men — spaghetti and steak. The menu is decorated with equally enormous photographs of itself, which is very Venetian. It’s why you’ll only hear Vivaldi in Venice, because he was Venetian. It’s why they display bad paintings in prime spots in the Doge’s palace if they were by Venetians, and hide a good Hieronymus Bosch in a corner. Because he wasn’t Venetian. It is why I once saw a vaporetto called Venetia 2 — for what else would you call it? A photograph of a pudding, possibly an apple and cinnamon frangipane with a scoop of ice cream and custard covers perhaps half a page. It is a pudding that is loved by its mother.
Here, we eat excellent, if expensive spaghetti bolognese and spaghetti carbonara, and hot, salty bread with oil. Due to the size of these portions we have no room for the cake hats, so I cannot tell you if they taste better than they look. And they look like second wives. It’s rather better than the average meal in Venice, but Venice is in the tourist-repellent business and has ceased to care.
Caffè Concerto is affable, then, and a happy response to the awful tyranny of Mayfair minimalism. There are worse things than gaudy cafés, especially now. I am tired of the ennui of so many London chains. Pizza Express has fallen into ruin — it just isn’t as good as it used to be — and Starbucks had two men arrested in Philadelphia for not buying coffee while being black. So why not eat steaming spaghetti inside a Venetian cake?
The bill, for three, is about £3 more than a return flight to Venice for one. That aside, I’m grateful.
Caffè Concerto, 29-31 Piccadilly, London W1J 0LF; tel: 0207 494 6844.