Believe it or not, it is still possible to make money in the restaurant trade. According to the latest edition of Harden's London Restaurants, only 64 closed in the past 12 months – the lowest rate in the capital since 2000. Contrast this with the number of openings: 121, up from a low of 111 last year.
"Everyone, including us, thought that London's restaurants were in for a blood bath in 2009," says Peter Harden. "Well, it just didn't happen."
This is good news for Richard Caring, Britain's most prominent restaurant-owner, whose wealth declined by £100m in the past year, according to one of the broadsheets. After acquiring the Soho House group in 2008, and opening a branch of Cecconi's in Hollywood earlier this year, he's now down to his last £350m.
Caring's latest venture is a chain of French brasseries called Côte. He launched the first one in Wimbledon in 2007, along with Andy Bassadone and Chris Benians. He couldn't have chosen better partners: Bassadone and Benians started the Strada chain in 1999 and sold it to Caring for £56m in 2004. Not a bad deal, even if Caring did sell it on for £140m. The plan with Côte is to build a high-street chain that appeals to the same market: the sort of people who care enough about food to seek out a good restaurant, but who'd blanch at paying more than £45 a head. If French food is your bag, Côte sits somewhere between Café Rouge and Racine.
Since the first branch opened last year, Côte has expanded to seven and, by this time next year, that number should have doubled. I decide to visit London's Wardour Street branch, but I'm sure any one would have done equally well. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of little minds, but it is the hallmark of every successful chain. From the outside, it looks like a modern French brasserie, with a large picture window revealing a sepia interior. Step inside, and you're in the Eurozone: generic modern furniture sits in front of an array of reflective surfaces. It is surprisingly full, given this is a Wednesday lunchtime in August, with lots of men in suits staring at their iPhones.
The menu might be described as French lite, with nothing likely to gross out mainstream customers, such as snails or frog's legs. It also includes a couple of non-French additions, such as risotto and seafood linguini, but it would be unnecessarily purist to complain about it. This is an upmarket chain restaurant, not a temple to haute cuisine – it's French as in "French fries", rather than the country across the Channel. The only objectionable thing about the menu is the inclusion of items that would often be free: a basket of bread costs £1.50, and if you want Béarnaise sauce with your steak, it will set you back £1.95. In other words, Côte is not as reasonably priced as it first appears.
I start with half a lobster, accompanied by watercress and mayonnaise vert, while my companion has the pea soup, and we follow up by splitting the Côte de Boeuf for two. The lobster is excellent, with a strong, fresh flavour, and my friend makes positive noises about the pea soup, though doesn't think it was as good as the one in Tom's Kitchen. Our Côte de Boeuf comes with potato gratin – we don't have to pay any extra for the wild mushroom sauce, but we add a salad of tomatoes and shallots and some French beans. It is good without being particularly flavourful, possibly a consequence of being slightly over-cooked. (We ordered it medium-rare, but it is more like medium.) On the menu it is billed as 22 ounces, but I hadn't factored in that this includes the bone. Once you subtract that, there isn't a great deal to go round.
But the biggest disappointment is the pudding. I order Coupe Noir – vanilla ice-cream with hot chocolate sauce – and it has the crystalline texture of ice-cream that has melted and then been refrozen. It tastes as if it has been scraped off the inside of a fridge-freezer. It is a shame to end what has been a pretty pleasant experience on such a sour note.
So a bit of a mixed bag. Given what Côte charges, I had been hoping for slightly better – this is a little too close to Café Rouge for comfort. If you're looking for value for money, my recommendation is to come between noon and 6pm at the weekend, when you can get the two-course steak frites special for £11.95.
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Côte, 124-126 Wardour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7287 9280. Mon-Fri 8am-11pm. Sat 8am-midnight; Sun, 9am-10.30pm. Dinner for two, £84.15
Second helpings: Brilliant brasseries
Le Café Anglais
Whiteleys, 8 Porchester Gardens, London W2, tel: 020 7221 1415
It's been much-hyped, but Rowley Leigh's large new Art Deco-style brasserie is an undoubtedly elegant and airy space that has given a culinary boost to Bayswater
Gascoyne House, Upper Borough Walls, Bath, tel: 01225 480 042
A lively and well-organised brasserie, ideal for pre-theatre in the centre of Bath; it's an intimate sort of place, commended by all who comment on it
Brasserie Black Door
Biscuit Factory, 16 Stoddard Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, tel: 0191 260 5411
An interesting location (especially if you wander around the adjacent gallery between courses) and the food is delicious
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2009'