Restaurants: It's easy to be sold on the Sotheby's cafe
Saturday 13 July 1996
You might have thought that what is one of the best and overlooked free galleries in the centre of London was above serving tea and biscuits to the footsore, or resorting to crowd-pulling tactics, but Sotheby's has opened a cafe on its Bond Street premises.
Sotheby's viewing galleries of works up for auction are open to everyone. The display changes as quickly as the gavel falls, there's no queue to get in, no admission charge and the added attraction of catching an auction in full swing. In early summer, the international art market becomes feverish. Over the past few weeks Sotheby's has shifted works by Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh and Renoir. Four pictures went to one bidder for more than pounds l0 million, which beats the Royal Academy's summer show for excitement.
But after all the frenzy, where around Bond Street is there for the fevered buyer (or the casual showroom visitor) in search of refreshment to sit quietly and calm down? Only the restaurants concealed in Fenwick's or Nicole Farhi, that I can think of.
And knowing the Sotheby's cafe is there isn't necessarily enough - like a hotel coffee shop squeezed into an annexe of the carpeted lobby, it's hidden from window shoppers. It's too small, despite mirrors to make it look larger, to use as an unplanned pit stop.
At lunch time you need to book, as it often fills up with the sale room's staff and a truly polyglot clientele. As we sat (at a table we'd booked the day before) ogling the most cosmopolitan of passagiatos against a backdrop of Christo's wrapped Reichstag (yours for pounds 50-pounds 70,000), we regretted we'd never reached eavesdropping level in several European languages.
The menu, however, does not need simultaneous translation. Breakfast and tea - when you are more likely to get a table on spec - read like a hamper of British brand names: Cox's Orange Pippin apple juice, Wiltshire ham with chutneys and granary bread, Welsh rarebit, Dumfries smoked salmon and British cheese with oat cakes. Lunch is intelligently parochial, too. Chilled pea and mint soup; pigeon breast salad with cherry tomatoes, avocado and pinenuts and a high quality sherry vinegar, and a sublime elderflower and gooseberry ice cream were all splendidly fresh and summery. The expert next to us - hadn't we seen him on Antiques Roadshow? - seemed to agree. The emaciated American woman on the other side sent back her roast tomato and shallot tart with crumbled feta and black olives because it was too large. It was lip-stickingly sugary, but it wasn't too much for us. A Claudia Schiffer doppelganger pushed fresh peaches, strawberries and blueberries - no fattening creme fraiche - round her plate.
Others made the obvious choice for the power eater anywhere in the world - lobster club sandwich. Apparently there at the behest of Alfred Taubman, the New York-based chairman of Sotheby's, it's served for lunch or for tea. This colossus of brioche splicing an impressive amount of lobster, plus lettuce and mayo, was cut into quarters so high they looked like a luxury lower block project. At pounds 9.50 a snack with status.
On the wine list, the cafe also shows off its wheeler dealer connections. Though it doesn't do anything as crude as to say so on the list, they're chosen by Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby's wine department. Several, including sherries (can that account for all the sherry vinegar the kitchen splashes about?), are sold by the glass. Mark-ups are low enough to encourage one to work through several glasses of the house white for pounds 2.50, the Rolly Gassman Gerwurztraminer for pounds 4.50 and even a Sauternes, if not onto a bottle of '85 Chateau Talbot for pounds 53.
When we reached the espresso stage, my friend wanted to smoke, but the danger of setting fire to the Reichstag and other works means it's banned. On the way out she asked the doorman where she could get a cup of coffee. He didn't direct her back into the saleroom but pointed her round the corner to a source of milky cappuccinos and Impressionist reproductions, More like your average gallery cafe, much cheaper, less refreshing and a lot less fascinating
The Cafe, Sotheby's, 34-35 New Bond Street, London W1 (0171-408 5077) Open Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, Sun noon-4.30pm. Closed 9 August - 2 September. Three-course lunch with wine, pounds 25. Access, Amex, Visa. No smoking
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