Christopher's, 18 Wellington Street London WC2
Saturday 08 June 2013
How many restaurants which survive for more than 10 years are actually any good? In the restless churn of the London food scene, the answer is arguably: not very many. Chefs move on, managers are poached, the owner loses interest and that exciting new concept grows as stale as last week's leftovers. Inevitably, the sizzle subsides and the quality drops. At which point, it's only a matter of time before the nice chap from Cote, or Jamie's Italian, or Bill's comes knocking to ask about the lease.
For a restaurant to survive in a prime location for a decade or two, it must be doing something right. Or at least doing something OK-ish with lots of charm and a happy way with its regulars. Christopher's is one such – a Theatreland fixture which by virtue of hanging on in for 22 years, now counts as one of London's grand old-stagers. Founded by Tory scion, Christopher Gilmour, and splendidly housed in a handsome Covent Garden mansion, Christopher's specialised in American-style dining – lobsters, burgers, steak and the like – at a time when that kind of fare was the exception in London rather than the rule.
For a while, Christopher's sizzled. Popular with media types who couldn't get into the Groucho Club and the groovier breed of legal and City bloke, it was a place to go for relaxed food in a smart atmosphere. Pop posh, rather than posh pop, to borrow a useful coinage from Peter York, another media-friendly old-stager.
In 2010, Christopher's was acquired by another political scion, Ambar Paul, son of steel magnate and Labour peer Lord Swraj Paul. At the time the new owner captured the madcap romance of the restaurant business by announcing "I am considering a number of investment/roll-out options". Way to create a sizzle! Maybe Paul was subsequently seduced by the building's heady history – it has been both a brothel and London's earliest licensed casino – but instead of rolling out, he has splashed out.
A no-expense-spared refurbishment has seen Christopher's reborn. A sexy, grown-up cocktail bar on the ground floor looks beguiling. The swanky reception area and curving staircase raise expectations further. And then you get to the first-floor restaurant, two connecting rooms whose designer has apparently been given the brief: strip this space of any character or atmosphere, and make it feel like the breakfast room of an international luxury hotel.
Perhaps it's the sheer scale of the room, with its towering corniced ceiling and tall windows looking out across Waterloo Bridge, but it feels like a dead space, decorated in muted, heritage grey and a splash of mustard velvet – Eurostar colours, according to my lunch guest, Alexei Sayle.
It also felt notably under-populated, given that this was only a week or so after a splashy relaunch. Even so, it took two attempts to get someone over to take our order – service, too, seems to be based on the Eurostar model, with constant announcements, enquiries and interruptions, but without the efficiency.
So what about the food? Has Christopher's upped its game to respond to the steak and burger-peddling newbies parking their tanks on its lawn? Well, in short, no. The American classics we tried were mediocre – a £32 surf'n'turf combo of under-seasoned burger and overcooked lobster; a tender but more or less tasteless New York strip steak; forgettable fries, tobacco onions with a weird peppery aftertaste.
An otherwise well-made crab and lobster salad was ruined by bad preparation, every mouthful offering a crunch of shell or cartilage. It was the only starter I've ever ordered that required its own spittoon. Malfatti, airy, gnocchi-like pillows of kale and buffalo ricotta, showed that the kitchen is capable of delicacy. And the chocolate, peanut butter and jelly sandwich with banana ice-cream we shared for dessert (absolutely gorgeous, if you like a huge slab of carbs drowned in glossy chocolate sauce) showed it's also capable of utter indulgent wrongness. But nothing was outstanding.
Our fellow lunchers seemed to be mainly loyal regulars – some suity men and an older couple having too much fun to be married to each other – apart from one very glamorous party who looked like Indian royalty; friends, we gathered, of the owners.
Maybe the room will eventually come to life, under the direction of Ambar Paul's daughter Anika, who worked the room, winningly introducing herself to each table in turn. Maybe the fact that Covent Garden is having a gastronomic moment will sweep Christopher's back into fashion. But on the evidence of our lunch, I wouldn't stake a 10-year business plan on it.
Christopher's, 18 Wellington Street London WC2 (020-7240 4222)
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