When the Tory party set itself on fire last week a restaurateur told me: ‘Don’t worry, Tanya, we’ll still be here when it’s over.’ She was wrapping a scotch egg as she said it, and it’s very true. There is a soothing continuity to restaurants: no matter what fresh hell, people need to eat. I will know civilisation has ended when I can’t get a sausage at the Savoy hotel.
People always say that the Savoy has the only slip-road in Britain on which people drive on the right. That is the least interesting thing about it.
It is, for instance, the only London hotel built as a dosshouse for people who like light opera (now musical theatre). The Savoy Theatre is still showing Pretty Woman, a musical that lies about the emotional state of sex workers in song. It is also the only London hotel built on the site of a medieval palace that was burnt during the Peasants’ Revolt – London’s policing problems aren’t new – and therefore the only London hotel whose predecessor appears in the historical romance novel Katherine by Anya Seton, which lies about how medieval aristocrats don’t smell. For all these reasons I love the Savoy. The interior is by Collinson & Locke, who designed the sets for D’Oyly Carte productions, so among other things it looks like a theatre that forgot, or couldn’t afford, to dismantle its sets. If you come here, you are essentially entering The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance and Utopia, Limited.
I am here for breakfast at the River Restaurant. The Savoy operates a rolling caravan of restaurants, many of which involve Gordon Ramsay, who was last spotted jumping out of a helicopter and into the sea for some reason. Perhaps he won’t return. It doesn’t matter. The names of these restaurants are very literal: The Grill; Restaurant 1890; the River Restaurant. I suppose the Savoy peaked when it bought Simpson’s in the Strand in 1898, which must be painful: to know your greatest days are more than a century behind you. I will resist a Brexit metaphor.
To reach the River Restaurant you must travel through what was once considered good taste: the stage sets. It feels like the cinematic montage from Rocky, except Rocky is an occasional chair. The hall is monochrome marble, like Claridge’s. Then there is a wall of orchids – as if a limb of an itinerant wedding show broke away and ran for it – a giant aviary without birds – are they dead? – and a windowless room with portraits of dead celebrities and a painting of the Queen on loan from the British Red Cross, which presumably doesn’t want it. There is also some racist statuary and, to really salt the wound, a diamond necklace.
The River Restaurant used to be Kaspar’s, named for a cat sculpture that sat at table at the Savoy when dinner guests numbered 13, but Kaspar’s wasn’t popular, so they gave the room to Gordon Ramsay instead, who thought hard and then named it for the river beyond the window. Idiocy is not new. Kaspar’s was like Oslo Court for gentiles, I wrote when it opened, and so is the River Restaurant. The decoration is a vile mash of marble, leather and wool; the menu is generic and over-coloured; the vibe is cruise ship in dock by a disappointing sea.
The River Restaurant is not quite Utopia, Limited, but it’s close enough. Few things are better than an English Breakfast in an empty dining room by the Thames, and this one is good: large, overcooked and unfashionable, like the room. Restaurant criticism is a search for dark places, and one day I will regress to cave.
The Savoy, 100 Strand, London WC2; tel: 020 7836 4343