Where the grass is greener

Biba, the Chelsea Drugstore, Hyper Hyper - to that tradition of trendy London shops add Planet Organic, a temple to green living whose worshippers range from the Spice Girls to Richard Gere. By James Delingpole. Photograph by Morley von Sternberg
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The Independent Culture

It's just gone five on a Thursday afternoon, and the groovers at Planet Organic are warming up for the evening session. A velvet swatch of Notting Hill Trustafarians are downing sweet green wheatgrass juice at pounds 1.35 a thimble (the perfect palliative to cocaine at pounds 70 a gramme). Blonde uberbabes in heavy shades are sharking through the aisles on a quest for organic, extra virgin, biological yoghurt and tall roues earning more than 60 grand per annum.

In the spice section are - no, really - The Spice Girls. In the florist's, Rifat Ozbek is contemplating a giant cactus (pounds 300, but you get free local delivery). At the greengrocers, Jemima Khan is buying bananas at pounds 2.75 a lb (about pounds 2.40 more than they'd cost in Tesco, but then these are smaller, tastier, more exclusive, Ecuadorian "Fifi" numbers). A cab has just turned up to collect pounds 400 worth of eco-nosh for a Mr Richard Gere. And who's that in the books section, leafing through The Multiorgasmic Man? Why, if it isn't Jarvis Cocker. And look - now Lulu's come in for her weekly shop...

All right, I admit it. Things didn't pan out quite so dramatically the day I went to visit Planet Organic. In fact, if I'm honest, I'd have to say that the two hours I spent there were a bit of a letdown. But then, they would have been, wouldn't they? How, after all, could a West London wholefood store possibly live up to its near-mythical reputation as the hippest hang-out since the Cobden Working Men's Club?

My Tatler tells me it's where fading rock stars like Sinead O'Connor go to rejuvenate their muse. The Daily Mail claims it's the perfect place to pick up supermodels like Honor Fraser. And an habitue assures me that it's long been the favoured recovery zone for the West London smart set after a hard night's smoking, drinking and snorting. "Just going there makes you feel 10 times healthier," she says. "It's perfect for people who take lots of drugs, because you can experiment with all sorts of strange substances. Even if they are legal!"

Lest I wet myself with excitement, I make a detour via Britain's chic- est public lavatory (designed by Piers Gough, complete with florist), which lies opposite one of Britain's smartest delicatessens (Tom's - as in Conran). They're both at the smarter end of Britain's trendiest avenue, Westbourne Grove. Half a mile away, at the seedier, commercial end, across from Britain's noisiest curry house (Khan's), you'll find Britain's most happening supermarket.

From the outside, Planet Organic looks like a florist. The windows abound with foliage and giant cacti, presumably to hide the unsightly check-out counters just inside. On entering, you're hit by a glorious scent of crushed grass (from the juice bar) and fresh vegetables. You know the latter are organic because they look dreadful: the mandarins are wrinkled and matt; the grapefruits mottled with brown; the pears leprous and holey.

No doubt they taste wonderful; they certainly ought to for the price. Tomatoes, for example, are pounds 1.35 a lb - 75p more than at the not-inexpensive Arab shop a few doors away. But then again, says fresh-faced co-owner Jonathan Dwek, they're guaranteed to taste like real tomatoes should, that they won't be pumped full of toxic chemicals - as most grapes are, so he claims. Apparently, grapes love to absorb pollutants, and, if you don't eat the mega-expensive organic ones which he stocks, you're flirting with death.

Warming to his eco-peril theme, he leads me to the splendid meat counter, where two butchers are hacking away at a vast side of beef. It is guaranteed free of E Coli and BSE, but also it is well beyond the financial reach of anyone who's not an ABC1. "Organic food - it's just commonsense really," says Dwek. "Think of all the hormones they put into non-organic beef. It's gonna catch up with you in the end."

I'll buy the gastronomic argument. There's no doubt that organic meat tastes 10 times better than your pre-packaged supermarket rubbish. But what difference will it make to me as an alcohol-drinking, pollution-breathing smoker?

"A smoker?" says Jonathan."Then you should move on to American Spirit cigarettes. They're made with organic tobacco." Unfortunately, they're one of the few organic products he doesn't stock. His partners, fellow Americans Troy Smith and Renee Elliott, disapprove.

Personally, I reckon Planet Organic would be improved with a bit of cigarette smoke. The atmosphere's just that little bit too pristine and clinical. For all its pretensions, it still looks and feels like a supermarket. Friendly, informed staff; fabulous products; definitely a step forward from your traditional, dry-flapjacks-and-lentils health food emporium. But scarcely somewhere you'd want to hang out in for fun.

Even the legendary juice bar is pretty joyless. Maybe green wheatgrass juice is the drink of the moment, but you can scarcely linger over something that's served by the thimble.

"Is it good for coke hangovers? Too much E? That sort of thing?" I ask Jonathan. "It does cleanse the liver, where much of the damage is done," he says crisply.

Clearly, I'm not seeing Planet Organic at its liveliest. In the aisles, I bump into a mother who's come from the other side of London to stock up on special dietary products for her allergy-prone son; a Belgian woman whose basket includes a four-pack of recycled toilet paper (I daren't ask what nobility of spirit possesses her to buy a product guaranteed to give you a sore bottom); but there's a distinct shortage of louche males and decorous babes. Nor are there any celebs, like the ones I mentioned at the beginning. But they've all definitely been here - Planet Organic keeps a list - along with Terence Stamp, Alan Rickman, Ulrika Jonsson and Sean Connery (who came for the inevitable wheatgrass).

Is it a good pick-up joint, I ask Angus Hudson, a cameraman? "Not being single, I wouldn't know," he replies. But he'd rather put his wet gym towel in a Planet Organic shopping bag than one from the Budget Savacentre.

Film producer Andrew Ruhemann is more forthcoming. "It's definitely got potential," he enthuses. "You get a lot of girls in for the Sunday morning detox session, sunglasses on. The most promising are the ones looking at the self-help books - it usually spells vulnerability." Even so, he admits to having had "no joy whatsoever" so far, "though I did once get the nicest smile."

Before I leave, I down a wheatgrass shot and a vegetable juice chaser. The resultant toxin-release gives me a headache which lasts for two days