I don't need to tell you about Café Rouge, do I? You've probably been to one. You may even be in one right now (in which case, hey, relax, it's OK, no one's judging you). The ubiquitous mid-market chain, with over 115 branches and counting, probably serves more French, or at least French-ish, food to Britons than all our other Gallic restaurants put together. Bridget Jones and her friends got drunk there, and it has introduced a generation of terrified Anglo-Saxons to such unknown pleasures as moules marinières and croque monsieur. But now, more than 20 years after the first branch opened, the familiar bistro-meets-snug bar look is getting a little fatigué, and clean-cut newcomers like Côte are setting the pace. So Café Rouge is regenerating.
The new look has just been unveiled, with the opening of the group's latest bistro on a prime spot next to Charing Cross station in central London. Villiers Street is a narrow cut-through to the Embankment which serves as an informal Research and Development lab for the hospitality industry. The first branch of Eat opened there (designed by David Collins, who was also responsible for the original look of Café Rouge). Today, the street is lined with chains, would-be chains and oddities such as Herman Ze German, which serves curry wurst with pommes frites. Truly we've come a long way since the days when Brits were frightened of boeuf bourguignon.
In classic Café Rouge tradition, the new branch has taken over a corner site formerly occupied by a pub. We breezed in, past the pavement placards shouting 'Vive le Bistro' and 'New-look Café Rouge starts here', only to find the place absolutely rammed, at 6pm on a Sunday evening. Why were we surprised? They haven't got where they are today by not being busy. And the moodily-lit dining room does look fairly inviting. Just like a real restaurant, in fact, only a lot more crowded.
Where the old Café Rouge felt friendly and casual, the redesign is more sober, and distinctly more expensive. The traditional template – dark wood, bentwood chairs, framed memorabilia – has been sharpened up with oversized red leather banquettes, a slate floor and funky industrial-style pendant lamps. There's a pristine zinc bar in a corner, with a TV showing international news, and a wall of spotlit wine bottles, suspended as if in amber, divides the main dining room from the less favoured areas beyond.
It was to one of these areas – a cramped and windowless cave holding a handful of tables – that we were whisked by our greeter, passing en route a perfectly nice empty table for four in the window. Back here, in the holding pen for families and tourists, the chic, grown-up look of the main dining room gives way to something much less bistro-ish, though to try and position this area – with its scarlet seating and white walls jittery with faux-casual murals – on any kind of scale between bistro and brasserie would be as relevant as debating the various circles of hell.
A new menu was rolled out nationally in April, in advance of the redesign, introducing a new section of small plates, various tartines, and some bistro classics you can't quite believe weren't on it before, such as bouillabaisse and coq au vin. What's striking isn't just the menu's length – no fewer than 17 main courses – but the relatively high prices. With mains at £10.95-£16.95, it's on a par with Côte.
The 'petit plats', at £3 each or 4 for £10, look good value, but they aren't kidding about the 'petit' – each tiny ramekin contains about four bites, though the duck rillettes tasted freshly prepared and authentic. As did a twice-baked cheese soufflé, which prompted Harry to say, "If I got this in a proper restaurant, I'd be quite pleased".
Not so the steak frites. Billed as "succulent, prime sirloin steak", the meat was tough and ragged, and seemed to grow in the mouth the longer you chewed it. The meat was also the weak link in one of the new dishes, poulet jaune grillé, whose juxtaposition of dry, exhausted chicken and pert baby tomatoes brought to mind Hugh Hefner's recent engagement photos. Bouillabaisse was better, built on a decent stock with a saffronish warmth to it, and clearly made from scratch.
A blameless crème brûlée and a screechingly sharp lemon tart, from the Tesco Finest school of patisserie, continued the not-bad-enough-to-be-bad, not-good-enough-to-be-good, theme of the meal. And with long waits between courses, it turns out that not only is Café Rouge not cheap, it isn't quick, either.
I know, I know. Critic goes to chain restaurant and has a bad time. Not exactly headline news, is it? But I genuinely hoped for better. Still, if ever a restaurant was critic-proof, it's this one. Owned by the giant restaurant group that also operates Bella Italia and Strada, it's about as far as you can get from the traditional, le-patron-mange-ici French corner bistro. So even though I didn't much enjoy the all-new Café Rouge, I think it's probably going to survive.
Café Rouge, 9-11 Villiers Street, London, WC2, (020-7925 2142)
Around £30 a head for three courses before wine and service
"Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Café culture
Café Gandolfi Popular Glasgow café serving classics dishes including meatloaf, pastrami sandwiches, Arbroath smokies and black pudding. 64 Albion Street, Glasgow (0141 552 6813)
Riding House Café Choose between the inspired £3-£5 sharing plates or mains such as chorizo hash browns at this popular new place. 43-51 Great Titchfield Street, London W1 (020-7927 0840)
Hive Beach Café Try the hot shellfish platter with lobster, crab, langoustines, crevettes and scallops in white wine and cream. Beach Road, Burton Bradstock (01308 897 070)