Piccadilly is losing its patina of dirt, its cadaverous character. It is overpriced and over-renovated,a meeting place for luxury goods. Perhaps I cannot forgive it for not actually containing Dracula’s ‘malodorous’ house; but who has a resentment against a street except this column and Hillary Clinton, who set a terrorist attack here in her new novel State of Terror (written with Louise Penny), which describes her resentment towards Donald Trump through the prism of genre fiction? Piccadilly does, though, now have three excellent restaurants: HIDE; the Wolseley; and José Pizarro at the Royal Academy of Arts, which opened this summer.
I am used to good art and bad food: one can’t have everything. The National Gallery café has so little imagination (it is called the National Café) that you must stare at Rembrandt’s face to cleanse yourself of sandwiches that are, quite literally, cynical, and imagine he shares your disdain. After all, that is surely what portraiture is for: agreement. Like Twitter. It is better to bring your own food, wrapped in greased paper, if that is still permitted.
The Royal Academy has the opposite problem in that the Summer Exhibition is still on. There is good art here. They have the splodges (or ‘Studio Experiments in Colour and Media’) of its first president, Joshua Reynolds, which make me yearn for a crazed and badly behaved Joshua Reynolds, rather than the immaculate Joshua Reynolds we have. (I think the same about Hans Holbein. I can never look at a Holbein without wishing he would drink a tequila slammer, then go to work on the eighth Henry and his rotten soul.) Yet it is overwhelmed by the tinny, explosive colour of the Summer Exhibition, which runs until January, as if time itself is broken.
But there is also José Pizarro in the Senate Room: a restaurant so good-natured and charming that you can imagine, while in its embrace, that all is well with the world beyond the door, even if Hillary Clinton stuck a bomb in it, mistaking it for Trump. It is Pizarro’s sixth London restaurant, and his second in the Royal Academy. (He also runs the Poster Bar café below.)
Perhaps, after Covid, we need soaring ceilings to feel safe. The proportions are exquisite. (The last Royal Academy restaurant I reviewed — the Keeper’s House — was as charming, but it was in a subterranean cave, cooled to protect the art on the walls. It was like dining in a slate mine that is also a branch of Farrow & Ball.) The walls are cream; the ceiling dusky pink; the doors pointless and fantastical.
Pizarro is a Spaniard and he serves tapas: hot and cold, simple and perfect. The acorn-fed jámon Ibérico is superb; the toasted bread with garlic, Catalan tomatoes and olive oil is something I could eat daily; the cheese plate with pear compote is glorious. I am aware I’m describing a ham and cheese sandwich, but there is no better ham and cheese sandwich.
There is a glut of seafood; and there is the cheesecake. I didn’t think a good New York City cheesecake could be improved on, and then I met Pizarro’s Basque cheesecake. Wait for the third beat of flavour. I didn’t know cheesecake could do that. (They were out of profiteroles, and that is normal. Profiteroles are special. I will return for them.)
So, in a bad year we have a small victory: a perfect art gallery restaurant in central London with none of the laziness and cynicism of the rest. The service is warm; the prices are good. You could have a fine, if dainty, meal here for £20 a head — and you should.
José Pizarro at the Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens, London, W1S 3ET; tel: 020 7300 5912.