The 1930s aesthetic is not quite as fun as it used to be. You can enjoy the detritus of fascism quite happily when you’re living in a secure liberal democracy, but when that liberal democracy begins to look unsafe, it feels more like threats in the form of tableware.
Still, the art deco style is everywhere, an oblivious pathway from decadence to something worse. It dictates restaurant design. It is as if the food knows something we don’t yet, and that makes us very stupid indeed — if, for now, not hungry.
The Holborn Dining Room is a gloomy barn brasserie in London WC1, a filthy postcode at the best of times. I think I would like this restaurant if Tony Blair — or even John Major — were still prime minister. It would feel like what it should be: a theme park in which you could observe the possibility of terror from a fat red seat. Perhaps it is the lighting, which is so low as to feel pre–medieval (is a peasant on fire?), but I find the Holborn Dining Room, which sits on the ground floor of the Rosewood Hotel, genuinely ominous. ‘Timeless luxury’, says the website instead, but it is nothing of the sort. It is vast and dark and red, and filled with people gibbering Brexit-related fears, which are no longer specific, but instead have coalesced into a kind of mood state.
It is the sort of place you would slip into and slip out of again to announce that the National Socialists have just won 37.27 per cent of the vote with a 19 per cent swing, on the BBC — the crumbs of a good, if expensive, hamburger still on your shirt. We’ll always have hamburgers, as Rick did not say in Casablanca. (They had better food in Casablanca, though you never saw them eating it.)
Art deco is here again, and even more so, at the Brasserie of Light in Selfridges. It is a self-important name — as well as being a lie — but this is a self-important time, especially for lipsticks. The Brasserie of Light is beautiful and grand, from Richard Caring of Le Caprice Holdings. That is to say it is Sexy Fish — an oxymoron and a restaurant for all apocalypses — transported to a department store half a mile away. You can eat modern European food between lipstick and sky.
It is visually thrilling, for it is built inside the great dark windows of Selfridges, which are better than anything Albert Speer ever did, and it is full of mirrors that are, quite deliberately, cracked from side to side. The tables themselves are mirrors: an obvious metaphor. Damien Hirst has made a glittering Pegasus to hang over the diners, for who can see the stars in London now? It is glittering and pointless.
The place is beautiful and grand and pitiless — designed, perhaps, to induce anxiety in people who want to eat but won’t, for fear of not fitting into the clothes in the world beyond.
Here, with fashion hags and actresses, we eat brasserie food, which is food of any kind for any time, brought to you as and when you want it. That is, it is cruise-ship food, and it is better than some and worse than others.
We eat a croque monsieur (£12.50) and a steak tartare (£10.95) and a burrata salad (£9.50) and a flat-iron chicken (£17.50). The flattened chicken knows what it is about, if we do not. It is all adequate, and it is prettily served by a woman who is charming to the point of cowed, and it is entirely joyless. It is dining in the 21st century.
Holborn Dining Room, 252 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EN,
tel: 020 3747 8633.
Brasserie of Light, Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1A 1AB,
tel: 020 3940 9600.