London may have some of the finest restaurants in the world – but when they're bad, they're really bad
One of the risks of visiting London is wandering into a restaurant so comprehensively appalling it could have been designed by Gordon Ramsay’s evil twin. Now, you’ll find delicious meals all over that city. But unlike New York, where the quality is more consistent and a truly revolting experience rare, London covers the full spectrum. It’s possible some of the best restaurants in the world are in London … and some of the worst.
Let me give you an idea of the latter. Recently, staying in west London and hungry after a full day of work, I found an Italian restaurant near my hotel. From the street, obscured by outdoor shrubbery, it looked like a charming trattoria. I was ready for a quiet table, a glass of Sangiovese and a plate of simple pasta.
I crossed the threshold into a dark and pungent hellhole. The first thing I noticed was the odour. Imagine mothballs in a gym locker full of second-hand loafers, and you will approximate what this establishment smelt of.
The dingy dining room was empty except for an old man slumped over at a corner table. How long had he been there? Was he dead? The sole employee, a stone-faced waitress, didn’t acknowledge him. Ushering me through this uncanny imitation of a restaurant, she sat me at a dirty table and handed me a menu laminated in grease. There was dust and grime everywhere, and empty Chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling in an attempt to be “quaint” and “authentic”,
I had to get out of there. But how? I was already in too deep, too committed, and I felt too embarrassed to walk out.
The waitress approached, asking for my drink order. I deployed the following tactic, which you’re free to use in a similar jam: I affected a worried expression and, patting the pockets of my jeans, said I had left my wallet at the hotel. She looked sympathetic. I excused myself, said I’d be right back, and left forever.
Out into the fresh night air! I was proud of myself for having averted a disaster. But I still had to eat. I pulled out my phone to find another Italian restaurant. There were a few in the area. After a brief walk, I saw one and walked inside. Again, I won’t say the name of the restaurant.
I entered a dated and dreary establishment. It was one of those places that have tacky murals of Mediterranean vistas on their walls. But it smelled normal and there were plenty of smiling patrons inside, so I figured I’d take a chance. I sat down and ordered a chicken dish.
“Oh, would you like some salad with that?” the waiter asked as he walked away. Remember that phrasing: “some”. We’ll come back to that.
“Sure, why not?” I said. I waited and noshed on some bread and olives.
The salad came. This was my first decisive clue that I had made another mistake. It was a moron’s idea of a masterpiece, a ridiculous construction that was more architectural than culinary. They had stacked tomato slices on top of each other and positioned one stack in each quadrant of the plate. A single black olive sat on top of each tomato tower.
A few minutes later, the “food” arrived. If it’s possible for a plate to have its own decade, this one’s was the 1970s. It had that grubby, dying-in-an-alley-after-a-Led-Zeppelin-concert look to it. The chicken was a deposit of pallid beige. It had been unevenly breaded and seasoned, so that thick globs of the stuff lay on one side of the filet, while the rest was bare.
The menu had said it came with peas, potatoes and sautéed spinach. I assure you nothing had been “sautéed”; they had microwaved it. A small mushroom cloud of dry steam plumed from the plate. The peas looked desiccated. In all likelihood, the spinach had entered an advanced stage of wilting before the shameless cook tried to resurrect it with a half-hearted stir fry. The potatoes needed antidepressants.
As for the colour of this vegetable collection, imagine the sickliest dark green. The green of a mouldy Gothic ruin. A visceral, cirrhotic green, as if someone had scraped rotting moss from the underside of a shaded brick. The whole thing smelled like a wet dog sprinkled with lemon juice.
Did I eat it? Hungry and exasperated, I tried. And as I did so, I remembered a scene from the old BBC mini-series version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which Alec Guinness, playing George Smiley, endures a grim dinner at some wretched brasserie with Joss Ackland. You never see the food clearly, but you just know it’s bad. No vodka martinis and fancy cuisine for these spies – just a nice hot serving of Jim Callaghan’s England on a plate.
I asked for the check. The lowlifes charged me £30 (almost $40). And oh, what is that item on the bill? The salad, of course, coming in at a robust £12. Remember the waiter’s last-minute offer of “some salad”? The “some” was a way to lull me into thinking it was merely a small, cheap appetiser, perhaps even a complimentary side portion.
Out on the night-time street, I had to ask a passer-by for a cigarette to get the taste out of my mouth. Then the thought of potential food poisoning entered my mind. A mild panic. A homeless man passed and asked for money; I gave him £2 because I figured I needed the karma at this point.
On the walk back to the hotel, I stopped at a supermarket for a few essentials: ramen noodles and candy for the nourishment I hadn’t yet received and, of course, a box of indigestion tablets just in case. I’m still OK as of press time.
Robert Wargas is the Catholic Herald’s US CEO