Le Caprice is a monochrome patch of the 1980s behind the Ritz Hotel, in the part of St James’s that looks like Monaco. (There is a car park.) It was, along with Langham’s and the Ivy, the most fashionable restaurant of the Thatcher years, beloved of media slags and wankers; also of Princess Diana (the night after she died, her table was kept empty, which is a unique elegy), Princess Margaret, Mick Jagger and Jeffrey Archer, who ate his first meal here after he left prison, because he too is unique.
Even so, Le Caprice, now 35, the age at which the pragmatic woman becomes a feminist, cannot compete with the monstrous exhibitionism of the new super-restaurants, specifically Novikov and Sexy Fish, which is, in a restaurant-themed retelling of the Cain-and-Abel myth (the Bible, not the Jeffrey Archer novel) also owned by Richard Caring. It’s too subtle, and look around: this is not a subtle age. But should it clad itself in gold, and buy taps made of diamonds, and employ a hot nude sous chef who is then photographed for ES magazine, it would lose its identity. (A good restaurant is like a good newspaper; it knows who it is.) So what can it do, this restaurant of naff ghosts?
It can, for instance, embark on a journey of self-mythology. (Four years ago it introduced brunch, which was not so dramatic.) And so, to celebrate its 35th birthday, and to evoke ‘those hazy, lazy, crazy days… bang-bang chicken, eggs Arlington, that salmon fishcake’, it has created a £35 Classic Caprice Menu, with a glass of champagne for £3.50, which was the price in 1981. I think I remember that crisps were 7p then; but I grew up in Norbiton. And — this is the copywriter in me — can you be lazy and crazy? Doesn’t that simply mean high on marijuana?
So, to Arlington Street, at 6 p.m., which is the last slot for the Classic Menu; come later and it is à la carte, with a gun to your head. There are blazing fires outside, and a doorman in a bowler hat. We are 30 minutes late; the response is both polite and rude. ‘The Golds?’ says a man of impeccable smoothness, as if I have not been to a restaurant before and need to have it explained to me: ‘Sit down, we’ll give you some food and then you leave.’
This then, is an interesting place, in that it was once filled with people gossip columnists considered interesting. But they are dead, or dying; and so is their café. It clings on, grimly, with the Caring money; it is well polished, with cream flowers suspended from the ceiling. The ladies’ loo is blazing white, like the face of God in a bad film. (A reports the men’s loo is black; ah, the Janus face of gender!) Otherwise, the world has moved on; now it is just me, the staff, and some children wearing massive headphones and staring at iPads, as if they know, even at seven, that reality is not for them. There are no wracked celebrities; there are no voids dedicated to wracked, and absent, celebrities; there are no celebrities. Le Caprice now feels like a practised but provincial restaurant; that is, the Sunset Boulevard of restaurants: ‘I am big, it’s that salmon fishcake that got small.’ I do not mind this. Ennui is my second favourite emotion.
The food, though, is somehow lifeless. The famous bang-bang chicken is cold chicken doused in peanut sauce, and chilly; eggs Arlington are eggs Benedict with smoked salmon; the lamb hotpot is tough, with absurdly delicate potatoes, two dishes at war; the risotto is not joyful, just OK; the cappuccino crème brûlée is almost inedible; the sticky toffee pudding is excellent.
But otherwise there is nothing here: just ghosts.