A French creole restaurant rises in the sullen ruins of London. It is called Louie, for French king or trumpeter, depending on your wish. It is next to the Ivy — now a private members’ club and franchise stretching to the London suburbs bearing small bowls of shepherd’s pie — and it is infinitely preferable. That is, I can get a table, and no pastiche medieval windows or tabloid photographers are involved. It’s a terrible thing being jostled into a gutter so someone can photograph the former cast of Crossroads. The Ivy is the Love Island of grand restaurants. It is for the spuriously famous, which is now everyone. The zeitgeist cries: we’re going to need a bigger Ivy. Or at least it used to. Louie is a small, golden rebuke.
It lives in a blackened -Victorian rookery — ah, gentrification! — and it opened with great misfortune: after the first lockdown and into the wasteland that used to be Theatreland. The atomisation I always fear is made explicit by pandemic: who doesn’t want a golden restaurant as we stagger into the light? There are many supper clubs in London these days and, though I like them, I wish they didn’t invoke the Weimar Republic — invoke decline — quite so much and so often.
I love a banquette but the insinuation makes me nervous. The Wolseley started the trend, and the Delaunay and others accelerated it. Now it is the settled fashion in central London: wide golden rooms ideally filled with laughing people in a world before television. Such places look unbelievable now; they are stacked up, waiting. If the people, who aren’t here yet, can’t match the styling — if it is more of a prayer than a fact — that’s not the restaurant’s fault. If they are all based on French brasseries — it’s the lighting — they have surpassed them; perhaps, like a rose, London will get more beautiful before she dies. I went to La Coupole in Paris, a restaurant so addled by its reputation that it describes itself as ‘mythical’ on its website. It seats its customers by sexual allure and the chef is bored with making onion soup for coach tourists in search of Picasso’s ghost. I could tell. Croutons can’t lie.
In a usual year Louie would have won warm reviews but instead the critics were at home staring at skyscrapers made of takeaway boxes, consulting chefs via Zoom and writing their criticisms in — what do I know? — glitter pens in the air. So here it is. Louie is beautiful in the 1970s style. There is marble, leather, wood and velvet, jumbled together through many rooms; it is like Liberty but exploded. There are lamps and low sofas and Persian carpets and foot stools. There are statues of herons; weird round ceiling lights like spaceships coming to land (would aliens even want to visit London now?); a roof terrace crawling with foliage; mirrored tables; good art; a metal armadillo; a bar of dreams. It is overwhelming: Scarface’s lair with nibbles. I expect nudity. I expect a bowl of cocaine, and Louis Armstrong on his trumpet. I expect a zebra.
Here we eat good oysters on vast bowls of ice, which look like still lives in pools of light; a dull but costly hamburger, but that’s what I deserve for ordering a dull but costly hamburger; good chips; a perfect cheesecake and a miniature daffodil for a crown. The food is fine, but it is hardly the point. Louie is a nightclub with food, and it tries hard to create the space people need to feel joy; it tries hard to create enchantment that has fled.