If you've seen a paparazzi shot of Kate Moss, Jude Law, Harry Styles or Rita Ora, in a newspaper, strolling down the street after a meal with friends, the chances are they've been to Lemonia, a restaurant in London's Primrose Hill.
It's a local landmark, a Greek place that's been there for 30 years – so it must be doing something right, right? On the evidence of my visit last week, I'm not sure what. Lemonia doesn't need the likes of me picking over its menu – but even if it has passed into legend as a place where the food is famously bad, and the famous love it (pace Davé in Paris), it's still a shocker if one actually assumes crowds mean credibility.
It's a terrifically appealing place to enter, it must be said, bustling with waiters like the best places you've been on your holidays, and with conversation pitched just below bellow. Murky black-and-white photos of ports and – that taverna staple – droopy vines line the walls.
We go mob-handed with the teenagers – my two and a spare, because someone needs to be the buffer between the bickering offspring. Tyrone's drawn that short straw. We're not looking for anything groundbreaking, we just want zesty, fresh, holiday food to enliven a grey Sunday. "I hope you're hungry," says the gruff, weathered waiter as he takes our starter order for tzatziki, garides, halloumi, dolmadakia, asparagus, hummus and pitta. Well, we are, but four thin slices of burnt halloumi, four spears of asparagus, a modest plate of garlic- and mint-spiked yoghurt and similar splodge of mealy hummus barely touch the sides (starters are all £5 and up).
The prawns are fridge-y but fresh-tasting; the stuffed vine leaves a little less perky but the kids are carb-loading on pitta and mopping up dips (note to self: order half as many dishes, but twice as much of them).
It's with the main courses that Lemonia and I really start to fall out. I want the comforting hug of a kleftiko (a joint of lamb baked in lemon with herbs and spices). The piece of meat put before me (on a suspiciously scorching plate) is one quarter greasy knuckle, with fat unrendered. There's nothing else bar a millimetre thick layer of split "gravy". Yes, the lamb itself is soft and yielding, but I don't think I'd serve it to mates for supper looking like that, never mind paying customers.
Mr M's moussaka is a perfect, small circle rather than a wodge cut from a generous slow-baked trayful, but maybe that's simply restaurant economics. Anyway, it's… well, "OK" is all he musters. He eats the rice that accompanies my lamb mournfully, and says it tastes like it's been sitting about.
The teens have a chicken and a lamb shashlik and a "meat combination", but it's hard to get a lucid response as one's chewing in time to Candy Crush and the other two are working out how to fork food into their mouths while texting with both thumbs (skillz!). The best bit of the meat combo is a sausage they reject, because it's about 40 per cent herbs – surprisingly delicious. We each have one bite of the Greek salad, which is unforgivably smothered in what tastes very much like Kraft salad dressing, and leave the rest.
Does it really matter that the food is duff, when we didn't have terribly high expectations in the first place? I think it does. But perhaps being a regular makes a difference – all around us are jolly groups. I say all around us, what I mean is over in the front room, which is where the Primrose Hill set seem to be. All around us in the backroom are mostly families with small children and tourists clutching Trip Advisor print-outs. They might be hoping to bump into Kate'n'Jamie, or Sadie and the kids, but all the slebs are a no-show today (or maybe they've temporarily decamped to Chiltern Firehouse (see below), which is where the paps have taken up residence for the time being, so thick with models and muzos is it).
Pudding? There's a lengthy, not very Greek, list but no one is willing to risk it. We drive up the road to Chalk Farm and Marine Ices for tubs of rich coffee ice-creams and, while Tyrone gets elbowed from both sides in the car, we wonder at how an utterly average meal could cost £186.65. If that's fame, they can keep it.
Lemonia, 89 Regent's Park Road, London, NW1. Tel: 020 7586 7454. £75 for two with drinks
Four more foodie notes from the past week
To this beloved veggie restaurant in west London. A refreshed room, but the same zingy food – a side of French beans and samphire with chilli was dreamy.
Lucky to have dinner in the private dining-room at this busy, buzzy new place. Bold dishes like blushing Ibérico pork and cod tartare are served family style.
The fêted Mikael Jonsson oversees the food at this tiny Soho wine bar. He makes the (vv good) bread, but charcuterie and cheese at their best need no interference .
I’ve failed to eat it every day of the season, but I’m not far off. For me, this is the finest spring produce. Fat, thin, steamed, grilled and with cheese, hollandaise… Yum.Reuse content