Whitcomb’s is in The Londoner hotel on the south-west corner of Leicester Square. The Londoner calls itself ‘the world’s first super boutique hotel’, which may mean that it is the world’s biggest small hotel. Or its smallest big hotel. I don’t know. Whatever its existential status, the developers destroyed an art deco cinema — the dour and lovely Odeon West End — to make it, and it looks like a piece of bright blue infant Lego with lesions for windows. Heritage organisations objected to the cinema’s destruction. Westminster council replied: who cares? We need Lego with lesions, or anything that looks like Lego: look at the Hotel W round the corner. That looks like a giant Lego fridge! I wonder if the council members have watched Blade Runner too many times, and in Lego. But not at the Odeon West End, never again.
The Londoner has five restaurants because one just won’t do. They must be legion, subject to whim, and something less determined than whim. There is 8 (Japanese); the Stage(champagne and cake); Refuel (‘a results-driven food clinic’); and Joshua’s Tavern, ‘a homage to Joshua Reynolds, 18th-century portrait artist and former Leicester Square resident’. (He lived at a house whose successor is All Bar One.) Then there is Whitcomb’s, which is ‘French Mediterranean’. They should have called it ‘Not Quite Monaco ‘or ‘Las Vegas but Worse (Lacking the Ambition)’.
I think the entrance to Whitcomb’s is on the corner by All Bar One and McDonald’s. I tug at a vast glass door. It is a fantastical door; a door for giants; a door that won’t open. Ah metaphor! Eventually, I find another door to the lobby of The Londoner. I am not suggesting London hotels employ Pearly King or Robin Hood impersonators as greeters (though perhaps they should), but must they be quite so lazy?
We could be anywhere in this lobby, but I place it, spiritually at least, in Switzerland in the late 1990s. It is vast, dim, golden and fiercely polished, so guests — those prepared to spend hundreds a night to smile in five restaurants, as if on a cruise ship — can see themselves reflected in mirrors the colour of money.
Whitcomb’s feels like a franchise that has swallowed a map and so cannot read it. It offers dregs of fake Provence for the pre-theatre crowd. The picture of a lemon on the website is deceptive, though it is a very pretty lemon. Whitcomb’s has glass walls, wooden floors and immense doors. It has a hint of industrial design, which is laughable, and a hint of tartan, which is absurd, unless you want a too-small chair that looks like the remains of a depressed Scot. There is no sense of Provence here; no lavender flying out of a duck’s bum like a comet; no scent, in fact, of any kind — something I noticed only later. Whitcomb’s is masculine, generic and entirely without identity. It is another restaurant for Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. They are piling up with the bodies.
We eat lamb chops coated in some sad herb, like Astroturf waiting for tiny players; a four-cheese fondue that tastes confused, as if the cheeses cannot agree on anything; chips that look like Jenga. If there is nothing wrong with the meal, there is nothing right with it either.
The joke is that few Londoners will visit The Londoner. Leicester Square resists attempts at gentrification, probably due to the smell. I wonder if the lesion windows even open. There is something bad in the air here. The London plane trees look like they are dying. For now, they hang on, like us.
Whitcomb’s, The Londoner Hotel, Leicester Square, London, WC2H 7DX; tel: 020 7451 0167