Why do people make excuses for surly staff?

‘You grab that table, I’ll get the drinks.’ I did as bid. A couple of minutes later, Paul was back, beers in hand, and we started chatting. Soon the member of staff who’d served him appeared. She was stony-faced and holding a card machine. ‘You didn’t pay,’ she said. Paul looked confused for a second, then glanced down at the machine. ‘Oh, it didn’t go through?’ The staff member shook her head. Paul held out his card, she punched the numbers again, we all waited for the beep. Then she handed him his receipt and left. ‘Service with a smile,’ I said. He laughed. And then, a second or two

‘You can stare at a cow you will soon eat’: The Newt, Hadspen, reviewed

The Newt is an idealised country house in Somerset which won the World’s Best Boutique Hotel award last year. It is small, beautiful and mind-meltingly expensive, even for the Bruton Triangle and its mooing art galleries. Poor Somerset! It never wanted to be monied enough to have a triangle, but the rich make their own mythology. Since they paint every-thing grey – and now green, I learn at the Newt – they need it. A triangle fills the day. The Newt is for people who think that Babington House is stupid (it is) and though the Newt has its own issues – like the King, its taste is almost too

‘Is it France? I don’t know’: Hôtel de Crillon, Paris, reviewed

Hôtel de Crillon sits on the Place de la Concorde, a vast square renamed for bloodshed, then the lack of it – it was the Place de la Révolution, with knitting and bouncing heads. Now it is placid, and the Crillon is the most placid thing in it. No one does grand hotels like the French, except perhaps the Swiss, who have nothing better to do. Hôtel de Crillon was one of twin palaces commissioned by Louis XV before the French butchered his grandson and his wife outside them: it looks like Buckingham Palace but prettier and with possible PTSD. It has been a hotel for 115 years and next

‘I pity MPs more than ever’: the Cinnamon Club, reviewed

The Cinnamon Club appears on lists of MPs favourite restaurants: if they can still eat this late into a parliament. It lives in the old Westminster Library on Great Smith Street, a curiously bloodless part of London, and an irresistible metaphor wherever you are. When once you ate knowledge, you now eat flesh, but only if you can afford it. Now there is the Charing Cross Library, which lives next to the Garrick Theatre, and looks curiously oppressed. Perhaps soon it will be a falafel shack and knows it. There is also the Central Reference Library, which could be a KFC, and soon will be. Public spaces are shrinking. They

‘The lasagne is perfect’: Hotel La Calcina, Venice, reviewed

Pensione La Calcina is one of John Ruskin’s houses in Venice. He stayed here in 1877, after completing The Stones of Venice and going mad, and there is a plaque for him on the wall: a stone of his own. It is next to the Swiss consulate on the Zattere, but never mind them. I think the Zattere is for people who have tired of Venice. It has a view to the Giudeccacanal, and the waterbus to the airport: to the exit. You can breathe here. I am staying in San Marco, where I can’t. My son falls from a water gate into a canal, and Italian grandmothers tut at

‘The chocolate soufflé is too good for people’: Pavyllon at the Four Seasons Hotel, reviewed

One in, one out, as Rick says in Casablanca. Le Gavroche, which was the first restaurant in Britain to win three Michelin stars – and this was before Michelin stars indicated poor mental health in gifted chefs – closes in January, which is serious news in the land of London restaurants: a kind of Congress of Vienna with Michel Roux bowing out with the blood of infinite chickens on his knife. I don’t love Le Gavroche the way other critics do but I admire it, even if it means ‘urchin’, which is not witty when you consider its prices. There was a scandal involving staff’s tips going to management –

‘The potential for jeopardy’: Pullman Dining on the Great Western Railway, reviewed

I am lazy and nosy, and so I spend a lot of time on the GWR service from Penzance to London Paddington. Each journey is a play with a unique atmosphere. Some are seething, particularly in summer when an eight-carriage train cannot fit everyone who wants to swim in the ocean but dine in west London that same night. Some are non-committal; some restful. I rage at usual things: luggage in the disabled space, which is almost always occupied by the non-disabled, though they may be fat; videos played without headphones; young people swearing at older people because they grapple with a rage they cannot understand. You can measure the

‘The food is as good as you will find in London’: Saison at Raffles London, reviewed

The Old War Office (bad acronym OWO) on Whitehall is now a Raffles hotel: you can stay in Winston Churchill’s office if that helps you sleep at night. I’m not sure I could, but this is the rational endgame of privatisation: you can sleep inside British history, which is quite close to sleeping through it. War isn’t the jolly marketing riff it was five weeks ago, and the atmosphere in the OWO reflects this. Even so, you need the money of a (fleeing) Tory donor to stay here, and perhaps they won’t notice that pre-war is outside their door in the form of children setting off fireworks and picking fights

‘They do better spaghetti bolognese in Hampstead for a tenner’: The Lobby at The Peninsula, reviewed

The Peninsula is a new hotel at Hyde Park Corner. It is part of the trend for absurd expense: rooms start at £1,400 a night and express the kind of preening mono-chrome blandness that will be the London of the future. It is a building of great ugliness – I would type the names of planners who allowed it, but on these pages it is incitement to violence. It sits on its six-lane round-about between the Lanesborough hotel and a long peeling red-brick late Victorian terrace that once appeared in a Stephen Poliakoff film about how things always fall apart. This food knows nothing of beauty, delicacy or comfort: it’s

‘Well-priced and skilful’: Masala Zone, reviewed

There are cursed restaurants and cursed women, and this makes them no less interesting. One is Maxim’s in Paris, which knows it – it gaily sells ties in a charnel house decorated for the Masque of the Red Death – and another is the Criterion at Piccadilly Circus, which doesn’t. One day it might meet its destiny, which is to be an Angus Steakhouse (this might lift the curse, the Angus Steakhouse has its own magic) but it isn’t there yet. Restaurant after restaurant favours hope over experience here: Marco Pierre White (Mark White) passed through, spilling acronyms about. I suppose it serves it right for being in the neo-Byzantine

Fine food in a fine restaurant: Origin City reviewed

Origin City is a good name for this restaurant, whether it knows it or not. It is at West Smithfield, the only surviving wholesale market in the City of London (I do not count Borough, which is a snack shack impersonating a greengrocers and is only spiritually in the City). Covent Garden sells face cream – Eliza Doolittle didn’t need it – and Billingsgate awoke one morning to find itself on the Isle of Dogs. Somehow the cows hung on in West Smithfield. We owe them a lot but I would say that, I am a restaurant critic. Somehow the cows hung on in West Smithfield. We owe them a

As gaudy as Versailles: The Duchess of Cornwall in Poundbury reviewed

Poundbury is the King’s idealised town in Dorchester, built on his land to his specifications: the town that sprung out of his head. (‘My dream,’ says Harry Enfield in The Windsors, ‘was always to build a mixed-used residential suburb on the outskirts of Dorchester.’) It is so fascinating that I dream, briefly, of moving in for the completeness of the vision – who doesn’t want to live inside art? – and the portrait of the British class system in housing. Here it is, at last, laid out like a textbook: journey’s end. We order via app and pay in advance: there is a shortage of what tabloids call flunkeys It

Bruton is suddenly the place to be – and I have a theory why: At the Chapel reviewed

At the Chapel, Bruton, is a restaurant and hotel in a former chapel in Bruton. This was once an ordinary town in Somerset, with a note in the Domesday Book, a ruined priory and a famous dovecote on a hill. Bruton is known for a flood in 1917 – it was the second-largest one-day rainfall measured in the UK – but another calamity was coming. In 2014 the art gallery Hauser & Wirth, with branches in London, Zurich and New York, decided it needed a premises in Bruton, and a restaurant called the Roth Bar and Grill. There is also an Instagram-friendly farmhouse to rent on this site. When I

A Margherita in Tolkien’s Middle-earth: Pizza in the Courtyard at Sarehole Mill reviewed

Sarehole Mill is four miles south of the centre of Birmingham. If this were a fairy tale, and it should be, it would follow that Birmingham swallowed Sarehole a century ago, like a dragon and its prey. I like Birmingham: I like its optimism, its violence and its multiplex, which can match any American Midwest mall in competitive dystopia and idiocy. Birmingham has energy, and that swallowed Sarehole, but unfortunately for Birmingham, there was a writer who cared: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien.Sarehole was his childhood palace, and now, more reluctantly I would imagine, his memorial pizzeria.  One moment you are on a tepid suburban bus route, the next in the

‘Thinks of the diner, not the chef’: Claridge’s Restaurant, reviewed

The BBC made a very odd documentary about the renovation of Claridge’s: The Mayfair Hotel Megabuild. They filmed, agog, as the hotel grew eight new storeys – three above, and five below – between 2014 and 2021 while staying open: guests slept and ate, unaware of ‘Narnia doors’ to the building site. (That Narnia is where guests aren’t indicates what Claridge’s employees cannot put into words without spontaneously combusting.) Labourers dug the basement by hand and impersonated the Artful Dodger when management toured. The BBC described the new penthouse at length without mentioning that it is gross, with a grand piano in a glass box on a terrace like a

Big Little Bavaria on Thames: Bierschenke bierkeller reviewed

I am not sure the vast Bierschenke bierkeller in Covent Garden is successful, even if it is skilful: I worry it is the wrong place for it. People go to Covent Garden to buy gym clothes, watch musical theatre and pick up men, not to find Wagner and pigs and the drumbeat of the earth: Covent Garden is more Kit Kat Club than Twilight of the Gods with sausage. I am not saying you must be into Götterdämmerung to enjoy this restaurant. It just helps. There is no atmosphere I can find, and I think this is deliberate: a beer hall is an existential void to fill  It used to

Hold the haggis: the changing face of Scottish food

Ask someone south of the border for their thoughts on Scottish cuisine and they’ll inevitably offer up thoughts of two Gaelic gastronomic inventions: haggis and deep-fried Mars bars.  Despite the wealth of produce available – and exported – from the country, Scottish fare has struggled to shake its tartan-clad clichés Despite the wealth of produce available – and exported – from the country, Scottish fare has struggled to shake its tartan-clad clichés. Take a table in London and you’ll find Orkney scallops, Isle of Mull oysters, highland venison and Outer Hebridean whisky on restaurant menus, while bonnie chefs like Quo Vadis’s charismatic Jeremy Lee and industry darling Adam Handling lead the capital’s

The rise of the open-fire restaurant

Burn the formal white tablecloths and fling open the kitchen doors. The latest craze in restaurant culture is open-fire cooking – where chefs sweat it out over roaring flames in full view of their customers. And the simple, raw nature of this method of food preparation seems to have set diners’ imaginations alight.  ‘Cooking outside over flames is primal and in our DNA as human beings,’ says Andrew Clarke, co-founder of Acme Fire Cult – one such restaurant in Dalston, north London. ‘The smell of woodsmoke and animal fats hitting the hot coals stirs up something deep inside.’ For Tomos Parry, chef and co-owner of Brat – another open-fire restaurant

My culinary journeys: restaurants worth travelling for

Whenever it is suggested travelling south or north of the Thames to visit an ‘amazing’ restaurant I usually start conjuring up excuses. Across London seems a journey too far for food – but going across an ocean for it can be worthwhile. In NYC last year, I found myself with an evening off and, staying in the Lower East Side, made my way to the Bowery Meat Company. The menu was perfect: steak and seafood, excellent cocktails, and sides which included sublime creamed spinach and whipped potato that threatened to float off the plate. I usually eat oysters naked, but Bowery’s version – baked under a parmesan crust – was

A taste of 1997: Pizza Express reviewed

As the government withers this column falls to ennui and visits Pizza Express. As David Cameron, who left the world stage humming, said of Tony Blair: ‘He was the future once.’ So was David Cameron, and so was Pizza Express: I bet they meet often. It was founded in 1965 by Peter Boizot, who shipped a pizza oven from Naples and a chef from Sicily and opened in Wardour Street. That branch closed in 2020. Boizot grew up in Peterborough but lived in continental Europe for a decade, and he learnt three things: an Italian restaurant must be bright; good pizza must be slightly charred (burning food is underrated); children