Usually it's restaurants at the top of tall buildings that suffer from performance anxiety. You've schlepped all the way up there in a glass lift. The smoking area is 40 floors down. There's a view of a cathedral roof. Those canapés better be pretty good.
Sometimes, though, just an iconic address can throw a restaurant into a tailspin. This week's destination, The Strand Dining Rooms, straddles two places on the classic Monopoly board, The Strand and Trafalgar Square. And as if that wasn't enough to live up to, it's located in the grandiosely named Grand Buildings. Which makes it the opposite of that quirky little pop-up you discover in an abandoned shop near the ring road. It's a prime-location address which demands a destination restaurant.
On credentials alone, it looks like the Dining Rooms might be just that. The restaurant's operator, Mark Harris, is a battle-hardened professional with a background in restaurant consultancy. The designers, Russell Sage Studios, have created some of London's most seductive restaurants. And the chef is a graduate of trad Brit stalwart Green's. All good reasons to Do the Strand.
Tucked discreetly behind piazza-like colonnades, the restaurant is near enough Nelson's Column to catch the admiral's good eye. And walking in, there's a certain wow factor. As in, "Wow, are you sure this isn't the Wolseley"? The soaring, double-height bar area, with its intimate, railway carriage-style booths, exudes a familiar sepia tinted, fin-de-siècle glamour.
But before we can take it in, we're whisked through this near-empty front section and planted in a cavernous rear dining room, an abandoned aerodrome of button-backed leather and shiny new furniture with all the deadened anomie of a conference centre hotel. A soundtrack of awful MOR hits plays too loudly, not normally the harbinger of a decent meal.
The Wolseley famously has a central area where the beautiful people are seated; the outer reaches of the room are known as Siberia. Here, it's all Siberia, no St Petersburg. And where are the other customers? It may be opening week, but in a 200-seater, surely there should be more than this smattering, which includes another restaurant critic, and a couple of office workers loudly engaging their waitress about the minimum wage in Estonia before trying to get a discount on their bill.
The all-day menu borrows its layout from the Wolseley, listing breakfast and afternoon tea alongside its main-event offerings, plus daily special dishes. Today's is sausage, mash and onion gravy, which tells you all you need to know about the SDR's culinary ambitions.
Despite the menu's efforts to hunker down with honest British produce – heritage beetroot with Fletcher's Berkswell, sirloin of Dedham Vale beef with chips – some of the dishes sound a bit wrong. Goat's cheese croquette with summer greens salad and raspberry vinaigrette? Toasted beef tartare? The bread selection, including brown sliced with all the allure of day-old Hovis, doesn't reassure.
Scenting blood, I force Harry to order 'seafood Scotch egg with dark crab sauce'. It's as nasty as it sounds; a stealth weapon of fishiness which announces itself mildly before gathering momentum and lodging itself in the olfactory system. Brawn terrine – a stiff, sticky, over- seasoned briquette – comes with a decent croquette and a nose-clearingly sharp piccalilli. Not a dish to cause sleepless nights at Terroirs, just up the road.
New restaurants all strive to create a signature dish. They've achieved something similar here, only in reverse, with their seafood crumble, an enormous ramekin of molten breadcrumbed blandness, priced at £16, which tastes like a near-relative of Sainsbury's Taste the Difference range. Slow-cooked lamb shoulder, pre-chewed in texture and clobbered by sweet spices, comes with a nice, pink rack of lamb, and a side of I Can't Believe They're Not Frozen chips.
Shoals of waiters in Harris Tweed look the part, but lack the efficiency of the Wolseley breed. "Do you think they'll get to keep the waistcoats when this place goes under?" ponders Harry.
Only when the pastry chef springs into action do things pick up –we particularly like an egg custard holding chunks of poached rhubarb which arrives aflame.
It's the only moment of theatre in an undistinguished meal. Who knows what has gone wrong here? If you could identify and market what the Strand Dining Rooms doesn't have, you would be a millionaire. (See under Corbin & King, the men behind the Wolseley, whose Marylebone newcomer Fischer's has that elusive magical quality in spades.) It goes to show what a difficult business this is. Simply being in a landmark location doesn't mean you'll end up with a landmark restaurant.
Grand Building, 1-3 The Strand, London WC2 (020-7930 8855). £40 a head without wine and serviceReuse content