I should know better than to visit restaurants assembled as if from disparate bricks, like thrift-shop Duplo: but the ever-credulous person sees the world anew each day. I thought Arcade, a glass restaurant on New Oxford Street, which somehow manages to be worse than old Oxford Street, might have some of the drama of the arcade of my dreams. I thought it might be eerie, even arcane. Names are important. This one lied.
It is new, of course. This piece of the city, once Gin Lane, seems guiltier than most parts of London – it gives even Mitre Square a race in spectral squalor – and so is constantly building, tearing and rebuilding, in some appalling yet righteous act of civic self-hatred. There are fine old streets around – Denmark Street hangs on with its twinkling guitars and its terrible memories, and the Harmony Adult Store winks from under a preening witch’s house – but newer developments are basically the West End’s response to Blade Runner, with an uglier cast. I wonder if it’s all designed to make people unhappy: London taken neat.
In architectural terms, Arcade has already given up, and it has only just arrived. It is a two-storey glass rectangle attached to the Centre Point tower on one side – there were gallows on its site, I read, which I think I already knew – and a newer piece of brutalism on the other, which contains an Italian restaurant called Vapiano, which I name ‘home of fresh pasta (near gallows)’.
Arcade itself, in its glassy rectangle, offers a paradigm of that most modern phenomenon: indecision beckoned in by glut. Above plain floors, and under vast, mad light fittings, it offers nine different restaurants, from which you can order simultaneously from one table. This is, then, the ideal restaurant for parties of nine who want nine different types of cuisine, and I warmly recommend it to the Labour party. The bar, though – and only the bar – works. It is the only part of Arcade that is rational. It should be a bar selling only gin. This is Gin Lane.
Even so, here is Indian, Nepalese and a chicken and burger shack; shawarma, Indonesian and sushi; more sushi, a Thai on the mezzanine, and a restaurant that sells alcohol in the form of jelly. It’s a post-pandemic restaurant which means half the waiters are computers: to come in without a smartphone is to come in without an arm. This makes me sad, as I like people and I will miss them when they have gone. The menu is code on the table to be photographed, whereupon a real menu will appear on the smartphone. We order on the app, and we pay online on the app before the food arrives. It doesn’t come by app, but it would if it could. It all feels untrusting, but it’s Gin Lane, and Gin Lane knows itself, if the restaurant squatting on its bones does not.
The food teaches a lesson: no matter how high-concept your restaurant, it will splinter further if the food is not good. Even a dystopia can get worse. People do not need computers, but they do need food, at least for now. We chose Indian in the end, though I thought jelly would be more morally suitable. I pay £1.50 for filtered still water – I think it’s tap water – £9 for ‘Hero’ BBQ chicken wings, £8 for ‘Hero’ paneer (cheese) tikka, and 12.5 per cent service charge, half of which I think goes to the app. The food is so salty I can’t taste anything else. The paratha tastes like limestone, and there are no heroes here. I can’t wait to leave. Arcade came in pieces, and it is still pieces.
Arcade Food Hall, 103-105 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1DB.