I love the drug of television, which is slightly less awful than the drug of social media because the conversation is one way, and so I have been rewatching Whitechapel. It’s a drama series about murder, and possibly the supernatural, set in Whitechapel, and it is slightly rude to its residents because it posits the idea that Whitechapel is the gateway to hell. It is mostly set in the coalition years, but it has an ancient aesthetic. People in hipster suits are butchered horribly; the east London churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor lurk wonderfully; murders take place in courts and alleys which I am certain have been glassed over in life, and sold on. Is anywhere in east London remote enough for murder now? As you can see, there is nothing I cannot, and will not, link to the housing crisis.
It also makes me think of the Quality Chop House in Farringdon, another haunted, macabre and therefore newly lovable part of London, poised between Dr Johnson’s house and Pentonville, although I do not think the owners will thank me for saying it. Farringdon still has an identity, after all — and that is something these days, as blind architects seek to make everything look the same.
It’s not new, this ‘progressive working-class caterer’ built for the occupants of the local social housing, although I doubt they could afford to eat there now, even if lunch is £22 for two courses and £26 for three. (Do go to famous restaurants for lunch. It is very often a bargain. You will pay more for a single chop at night.) It’s been a restaurant since 1869, but of course that chef is dead.
It reopened in 2012 under Will Lander — also of Clipstone and Portland, both excellent restaurants in Fitzrovia — with its original, now listed, Victorian interior intact. It became that thing I usually avoid: a critic’s restaurant. Just as I find comedian’s comedians unfunny — I like belly laughs, not tales of inadequate fathers — I usually find critics’ restaurants unappetising, a joke I do not get. They come and rave about the butter, and I wonder what I missed. But I like this one, and if you can tolerate a spindly chair — and many can’t — you should eat here. It sits on its long grimy street in black brick with large windows, with curling letters in its name. Exmouth Market, beloved of foodies — and the home of the late specialist potato restaurant which only I liked — is nearby. Inside the floor is black and white and chequered; there are dark wooden booths and blackboards for menus and slightly wonky cream walls; and the hateful, though stylish spindly (French) chairs. Will no one think of the fat people whose greed and sloth invented the restaurant? It is not as pretty as my favourite old restaurants, but they are in the West End and styled for wealth and dreaming; they are, I increasingly realise, a child’s restaurants, but joy — which the diner is really seeking, for food you can get anywhere — is a subjective thing.
It specialises in meat, fish and game, simply done but turned, with cleverness, into something wondrous. We eat a Barnsley chop, being in a chop house and unimaginative — a double-loin lamb chop, sweet and charred — and an equally sweet pheasant. The size of the portions mean there is no room for pudding, a minor tragedy — burnt meringue with rhubarb, sticky date sponge.
The Quality Chop House is doughty and interesting. It feels gloomy and intense. I think my grandfather, who had only a very brief career working for the Richardson gang, because he was too decent to nail people to floors with any enthusiasm, would have loved it.