If ever a restaurant embodied the Zeitgeist of the Nineties (and isn't Zeitgeist the Ninetiest of words?) it was Quo Vadis. How deliciously ironic that an old Soho haunt, once the home of Karl Marx, should be taken over by the PR maestro and corporate flack Matthew Freud. And what larks when Freud and his partners, the artist Damien Hirst and Marco Pierre White, eventually had a spectacular falling-out, leaving White sulking in sole charge with only his self-painted Hirst knock-offs for company. Truly, each generation gets the bohemians and boulevardiers it deserves.
Like many a Soho old-timer, Quo Vadis, est. 1926, proved to be surprisingly resilient through all this, slipping quietly back into obscurity via a subsequent change of ownership. Then, earlier this year, the boards went up, signalling the start of a new chapter. The new owners, two bright young restaurateurs called Sam and Eddie Hart, are as different from the last mob as it's possible to imagine; career caterers (albeit of a rather elevated stripe: they grew up in the country house hotel Hambleton Hall), they have already launched two successful restaurants, Fino and Barrafina.
The fact that these are modern tapas restaurants, while Quo Vadis was to be relaunched as a contemporary take on a hotel grill room, might have set alarm bells ringing, had the Harts not generally been so well respected. Personally, I've always felt that they're very good at food, but that their restaurants lack, well, heart. So I was curious to see how they'd go about creating the more comfortable, cosseting atmosphere required for an elegant three-course meal, rather than a staccato flurry of tapas dishes.
The answer is, not very well. Quo Vadis gets many things right, including, crucially, the food. But a restaurant like this is about so much more than the food. One hesitates to use Manuel from Fawlty Towers as a reference point, given the Harts' Anglo-Spanish heritage, but there truly were touches of that farcical ineptness in the service we encountered over the course of our midweek dinner.
Still, let's focus on the good stuff. The room, for example, which has the same updated Twenties glamour as The Ivy and J Sheekey, all clubbable parquet floors, golden leather banquettes and foxed mirrors. The menu also has obvious parallels with The Ivy: simple British classics with an emphasis on grilled meat and fish, and a seasonal focus.
Given the Harts' reputation for serving excellent seafood and shellfish, we stuck to that end of the menu for our starters, and were generally happy; particularly with the brown shrimp on toasted pain Poilâne, and a silky, chilli-spiked crab tagliatelle. Fresh langoustines came with superb mayonnaise, and Colchester oysters on the half shell with red onion and Tabasco.
The oysters, though, didn't reach the table until the other starters were almost finished, and our waiter's general skittishness and anecdote-interrupting incursions put a serious damper on the evening. After taking our order, he returned to interrupt another punchline, saying that Chef wasn't happy with the turbot and recommended ordering a different fish. The substituted skate with capers was good, as was slow-cooked pork shoulder, aromatic with juniper berries, served with a strip of flattened crackling and apple sauce. Veal sweetbreads were cooked rather too rare, while from a variety of beef cuts served on and off the bone we sampled a decent sirloin steak, deep-flavoured under a good caramelised surface, with excellent triple-cooked chips and Bearnaise sauce.
By this stage, we were more or less alone in the room, apart from a couple about whom we knew rather more at the end of the evening than we would have liked – and if you're reading this, nice, dark-haired lady, don't go back with him, you deserve better. Having endured anecdotus interruptus all night from our waiter, it was galling to be then left alone, with no one ever coming to take our pudding order. Maybe Chef wasn't happy with the puddings? When Harry ordered a consolatory brandy he was told the digestif trolley hadn't yet arrived, and all they could offer was a Martell Cordon Bleu at £9.50 a glass. "There's a Threshers down the road!" as one of my guests pointed out.
Meanwhile the sound of hilarity and piano music drifted downstairs from the private members' bar, into which the Hart brothers and their entourage had long since disappeared, apparently taking their front-of-house team with them. Our only encounter with the owners came when one approached to supervise the clearing of our table, not making eye contact or asking us how our meal was, but fussing around and standing on Harry's foot in the process. All of which reinforced my opinion (OK, let's call it a prejudice) that the brothers may be good restaurateurs, but they're not natural hosts.
There's a reason The Ivy and its sister restaurants are always packed, and it's only partly to do with the food; much more, it's about their ability to make diners feel special, and every meal there like a treat. It may look effortless, but it's bloody hard to get right. Something I suspect the Hart brothers are now discovering.
Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7437 9585)
Around £60 a head, including wine
Side Orders: Classic revivals
By Madeleine Lim
The Peat Inn
David Wilson put this restaurant on the map 30 years ago – and when Geoffrey Smeddle took over in 2006 he took it to new heights with his brand of classic French cuisine.
Near St Andrews, Fife (01334 840206)
Walnut Tree Inn
Famous for more than 30 years, this Italian classic lost its sparkle a few years ago – and was triumphantly revamped by Shaun Hill this year. Llanddewi Skirrid, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire (01873 852797)
This celebrated seafood restaurant and oyster bar attracted the glitterati in the Fifties and Sixties; in 2006 Caprice Holdings restored it to its former glory.
20 Mount Street, London W1 (020-7495 7309)
The Box Tree
Forty years ago, this Yorkshire eaterie was a legend, but earlier this decade it fell on hard times – until its Michelin-starred renaissance, courtesy of Simon and Rena Gueller.
35-37 Church Street, Ilkley (01943 608484)