To the Ned, as diarists say when they can’t provide a rational reason for their voyage: the colossal banking hall transformed into ten restaurants, or one super-restaurant with ten menus, by the owners of Soho House, who are sucking up all the press coverage the age of churnalism can grant. I cannot yet decide what is more chilling: a Soho House open to all or a Soho House safely hidden behind its semi--weaponised membership criteria. I began to loathe the brand when I saw the table-tennis tables and selfie booths at Shoreditch House. I wouldn’t care if the media class played table tennis and took selfies until their hands and faces fell off if they had predicted Brexit or Donald Trump’s election victory, but they didn’t because they were playing table tennis and taking selfies, and that is disgusting.
The edifice first: a pale, cold block with angry ornamentation by Edward ‘Ned’ Lutyens on Poultry, a street near the Bank of England named for chickens. Outside, two paid hipsters lurk, drawing in the ugly and dismal (that is, the non-membership) with reassuring smiles. It works. On Saturday evening, much of Essex is here.
Inside, a spectacle: a massive restaurant ebbs towards a stone horizon. There is Millie’s Lounge (England, specifically Bournemouth); Cecconi’s (Venice); Café Sou (Paris); Zobbler’s Delicatessen (New York City); the Nickel Bar (the rest of America, excepting California); Malibu Kitchen (California by itself); Kaia (Asia, all of it lumped together); Ned’s Club Upstairs (wet members of Soho House only, for it has a swimming pool with City views); Lutyens Grill (dry members of Soho House chomping on steak); and Ned’s Club Downstairs, a members-only beverage opportunity in a bank vault seething with so many metaphorical possibilities I don’t bother writing one, for who says criticism should be easy?
The members-only rooms are forbidden to me; I can only imagine merry-go-rounds full of laughing hipsters having milkshake fights, playing with Bratz dolls, then retiring to use the cut-and-paste function on their MacBooks. The rest are zoned by potted plants, dark green columns and breast-height wooden walls, on the cheap it seems. The effect is to make the Ned resemble a giant buffet in a mid-priced hotel on Tenerife in 1960, without the joy: here the pasta station, here the noodle station, and so forth. The decoration is gloomy retro Edwardiana, and shabby: there is a dusty film on the body of the Ned, and it is Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel. This may be a budgetary imperative — I read nothing of Damien Hirst artworks or golden statues of fish. This is what I like about the public room of the Ned: its sense of failure. It is six weeks old, and already, at least aesthetically, on the slide.
We eat at Millie’s Lounge, on low chairs under dim lights, and taste the food of the Agatha Christie victim: doughy English, in large portions, with nothing to disgust or surprise. Chicken leg and roasted potatoes, minced beef, lamb cutlets, and fish and chips: all are well-cooked, evenly presented, and unremarkable.
What to say about a super-restaurant whose marketing strategy denies its customers what they most desire — belonging — but instead, literally, throws them a bone? I would call it cynical but, since I don’t want to eat supper in a bathing costume and gaze at the Shard, and since if I want to eat steak I go to Hawksmoor Guildhall (which does not employ a door model to reassure me I am welcome, for I know I am), I don’t mind at all. Let the brand roll out, in all its permutations, for the ambition is dazzling. Let Soho House clad the world.