Pharmacy (as with Prodigy, there's no definite article) is the first theme-restaurant for the Sensation generation. Downstairs, a fashionable cafe/bar offers toast-based snacks; upstairs, a grown-up restaurant serves serious food, all in a dramatic, pharmaceutically themed environment designed by Hirst himself. It occupies the site of what used to be a cavernous Greek restaurant at the glummer end of Notting Hill Gate - the busy highway that serves Notting Hill as Oxford Street serves Soho, marking its frontier without sharing any of its hip atmosphere. Helen, who lives in the area, pronounced it "the worst location on earth", proving Notting Hill dwellers really do exist in their own little world.
We went on a Friday, the night after Pharmacy opened, and already there was a small queue outside the sliding plate-glass doors. The building looks big and exciting and modern, like the most exuberant kind of Californian art gallery, with a gleaming white facade, acres of sheet-glass and windows lined with shelves of proprietary medicines. Doormen stand guard at the entrance, only admitting the lucky few with reservations - in fact, with the queue and the heavy security, it was like trying to get into the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy. I half-expected someone to search our bags, to check we weren't planning some sort of Tabasco-flinging protest.
Muttering "let me through, I have a prescription", I made it to the front desk where our booking was verified. We were swiftly ushered through the bar area (more drugs cabinets, slightly spartan, French chemist's shop meets Internet cafe) and up to the first-floor restaurant. High-ceilinged and glamorous, it buzzed with first-night excitement and made us feel like we were groovy extras in a film about swinging London. A periodic table is painted over the stairs, walls are papered with pages from a drugs encyclopedia, and there's lots of Damien Hirst originals - here a spot painting, there a huge molecular model and everywhere, big cases of butterflies stuck in brightly coloured paint. Together with the red surgeons' scrubs worn by the staff, the butterfly pictures provide vivid splashes of colour in an otherwise principally white environment. If it were an art gallery, people would say it was "an amazing space".
But it would be wrong to approach an evening at Pharmacy as though it were just a gallery-opening with bigger canapes. Two head chefs - Richard Turner, a former protege of Marco Pierre White, and 27-year-old Sonya Lee, who trained with the famed Alain Ducasse in Paris - have created a menu that offers a mixture of British comfort food and modern French cuisine: fisherman's pie sits alongside roast salmon parmentier, fries are offered as well as braised lentil with lardons, and the menu will change regularly. Prices for main courses range from pounds 9 to pounds 15, though some of the pricing seemed slightly eccentric - a starter of scallops, at pounds 12.50, was twice as expensive as a parfait of foie gras.
Helen was desperate for a square meal: "I've been leading a foraging sub-existence all week," she explained, "eating baked beans cold from the tin with a spoon." In fact, she was so hungry that when her char-grilled scallops arrived, she dug greedily into the bed of rice, only realising too late it was actually sea-salt. My "carpaccio" of sea bass in an oriental dressing was simple and appetising. Sharon was happy with her meaty, spit- roasted sardines, though I forced her to say they weren't as good as the ones I'd barbecued for her in Majorca last summer. There was nothing particularly original about the cooking, we agreed - "Just the usual things, done quite well," as Helen put it.
It's hard to say whether our fellow diners were typical of the kind of crowd Pharmacy will attract when it settles down. They looked affluent rather than fashionable, the kind of smart, middle-youth types you'd expect to find in 192 or Kensington Place, and not in Notting Hill's more outre eateries. They may all have been other food critics and restaurant owners, judging by the amount of companionable table- hopping that was going on.
When our big moment came, and one of the co-owners hopped over to our table to chat to us, Helen rather let us down by asking him to light the wrong end of her cigarette. He soon wandered off with a troubled look on his face, but he did reveal before he left - and I am sure this was just a coincidence - that they're thinking about introducing a members- only policy for the downstairs bar, to ensure "an element of quality control". This plunged Shazzer into a turmoil of anxiety about whether Pharmacy was soon going to be so trendy it would be surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of dental floss, designed to keep people like her out. "It's like Momo all over again," she moaned, referring to a previous disappointment, when she'd gone from reviewer's guinea-pig to pavement-bound refusenik in the space of a couple of weeks.
Our main courses were as solid and satisfactory as the starters. I haven't eaten roast pork for years, so I was surprised to find myself ordering it. Maybe it was the publicity about the Tamworth Two. Anyway, it was piggy but good, in a Sunday-lunch-at-your-mum's kind of way, and the crackling was superb, though, after I'd chomped through the thick layer of white fat, my thoughts started to turn longingly to the medicine chests downstairs. Sharon's spit-roast gambas were nicely spicy, but Helen won with two huge pink hunks of roast Landes duck, which came with pears and little onions in a tasty sweet-and-sour sauce. Fries were exemplary, and boded well for the comfort-food section of the menu, due to be expanded when Pharmacy really gets going.
With a selection of desserts, a pounds 28 bottle of wine and coffees, our meal came to around pounds 50 a head, which we felt was reasonable given the fun we'd had. Helen's happy verdict was: "It's just what Notting Hill needs - a Groucho Club!" But this just depressed Sharon again, because she can never get into the Groucho Club either. She did cheer up, though, when, much, much later in a nearby drinking club, we bumped into some acquaintances who asked where we'd been. "Pharmacy," we beamed. "Oh, haven't you been yet? How weird...".
Pharmacy, 150 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 (0171-221 2442). Restaurant: Lunch, Mon-Sat 12.30pm- 2.30pm. Dinner, Mon-Sat 7pm-10pm. Cafe/Bar: Mon-Wed, noon-1am. Thurs-Sat, noon-2am. Limited wheelchair access. All major credit cards.Reuse content