Occasionally a critic must review a restaurant in which they are prepared to spend their own money. So here is the Dean Street Townhouse. It is a terrible name, because all houses in Dean Street, a fusty artery of Soho, are town houses; they are not Wendy houses or country houses or dolls’ houses. But Dean Street House is worse, too close to Soho House, the private club and near neighbour where no one will meet your eye for wondering where the next useful tosser is. ‘Townhouse’ has a kudos, I suppose, these days. It is almost opposite the Groucho Club, which is Noel Edmonds’s Multi--Coloured Swap Shop for media idiots. It shares a corner with Meard Street, in which my friend the artist Sebastian Horsley killed himself with heroin by mistake.
It is a Victorian cream cake, five storeys high and smooth, with rackety warehouse windows on top. There are tables outside with racing-green umbrellas, should your lungs be able to cope with the fug of the London bowl, which finds its nadir in Soho. (Oxford Street, to the north, has the worst air pollution in the world. I read that in the newspaper of everyday terror, the Daily Mail.) Otherwise, Soho is polished, home to luxe sex shops, branches of Costa Coffee and the sort of angsting people in fashionable spectacles that Martin Amis writes about. But the fug — and the native Soho smell of bleach and animal fat — remains. It is ineradicable, a place for coughing and retching and what psychopaths call ‘networking’. (Non-psychopaths call it ‘making friends’). Sometimes I count the trees in Soho, and sympathise. They look sick.
The higher storeys are an anti-chintz hotel, pruned and tasteful, which is nonetheless slightly moronic. Rooms are called tiny, big and bigger, like children; the only proper Soho hotel is Hazlitt’s, a tatty boudoir on the corner of Soho Square where you feel inadequate if you aren’t committing adultery with a solicitor. The artist William Hogarth used to live here, says the PR blurb — what would he make of us? A dull painting, I suspect. It’s our clothes. They’re boring.
The dining room is superb; long and wide, with an interesting bar, so you are not required to watch other customers eating; you can sit and stare at glass bottles of alcohol. There are red leather banquettes, greenish walls and a chequered floor; to the right is a quasi-salon with gentlemen’s chairs and faded curtains. Part caff, part Louis B. Mayer’s idea of a fantasy knocking shop — what is not to love? The customers, for Soho, are semi-normalised; there are freelance journalists, because the Dean Street Townhouse serves free newspapers, which grow in cover price as their rates shrink, and some actors, none of them famous enough to irritate. (I see Matthew Modine, who was briefly a movie star in 1990, and Tom Hollander, who is very likeable for an actor). This is not a restaurant for the fashionable or for people who hate food and their homes too, and so go out to eat and hate; no cadaverous socialite scores a bacon butty at 7 a.m., even if it is bespoke. There are no fads; no puddings aping fairie grass, no ‘designer’ hamburgers, no steaks that loathe women, and no fake books. There are no parodies, mockeries or jests. Nothing — and this is the charm — is pretending to be something else. This is restful.
The food is plain and well-cooked, breakfast to midnight, and served by staff who are neither offensively beautiful nor insane. The prices are excellent: a sausage sandwich — £6. Boiled egg and buttered soldiers — £6.50. Treacle Tart and clotted cream — £6.50. A Bloody Mary — £9. A three-course Sunday dinner — £28. The lighting is soothing in a dirty town. In all, a perfect restaurant, for what it is not.