L’Escargot, or the Snail, is a famous restaurant on Greek Street, Soho, opposite the old Establishment club; the oldest French restaurant in London, they say (1927), and who am I to argue? It is the type of restaurant that non-Londoners have heard of and used to visit. They passed photographs of Larry Olivier and Mick Jagger staring glumly at them as they took off their overcoats in the hallway for a pre- or post-theatre supper; despite this, or maybe because of it, the Snail fell into a long and sad decline. Its green and gold rooms embraced silence. The waiters snarled; the snails wilted. They had been there too long. They were big in the 1980s, and who recovers from that?
Now the Snail is rebooted, as Hollywood likes to say, moronically, with new decor, a new chef called Oliver Lesnik, and a strange private members’ club above. This is joy sitting on dirt, for Soho can never transcend its filth and its essential sadness; as we arrive at 5 p.m., a lunch party is swaying out into the street, with careful eyes. Drunks are so very careful. I suppose they do not want to fall.
First, the house. This is a fine old Soho mansion, once the house of a Duke of Portland, with a marvellously opulent doorway, so opulent it needs a feather, breasts and regrets; here, the doorway is destination enough. (It bears a proud and tiny snail.) I demand a tour, and learn that the upper rooms, previously secretive, have been opened up. They are large and sequential and brightly coloured — blue, red, yellow. It is all slightly Masque of the Red Death, which is probably my favourite film about interior decoration in time of plague.
This does not mean I do not like the Snail. It is Soho as Soho sees itself; Soho choking on its own myth in every shade of CBeebies. How it will compete with hateful, subtle, profitable Soho House, I do not know. It seeks the custom of Vincent Price and Joan Collins. Of babies and cardinals. Of silent drunks. Even if it is currently empty, apart from four Americans, who are probably off to Miss Saigon next door because some races are never sated. They need musical death; their own crimes in song. The dining room is likewise spirited, tacky and insane. It revels in its tastelessness. It has Restaurant Dysmorphic Disorder; it does not know what it looks like. There is a too-large chandelier, a vast mirror, the world’s most hideous rug — it looks like earth, which is surely the antithesis of rug, or anti-rug? — and walls painted the colour of dried blood. In the back room, there is a false wall made of pot plants, like a mad Jurassic Park. Pot plants? In a dainty Georgian house? What madman did this? The decor is countered by a waiter of peculiar sweetness and style. He is in pale brown tweed and tidy facial hair. He does not sweat.
The food, thankfully, is excellent; with a poor chef the room alone would be inedible. We have caesar salad, quiche lorraine, and macaroni cheese, which is a mad dish to order at 5 p.m. in July but, hey, it’s Soho. Take the drugs! Suck them down! Be wary! A then eats an orange cassoulet — ‘very nice’, he says, but he is paid by the word — and dauphinoise potatoes. I eat a summer risotto, which is slightly overseasoned. Nothing will induce me to eat a snail, even in the house of snails. So don’t ask; blame it on casual racism. We are too full for pudding; full of carbs, pot plants and mirrors. I like this restaurant; it is confident in own vulgarity; it chugs onwards to its future. Spiritually it is the sister restaurant to the Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing club on Tottenham Court Road. And what is wrong with that?