Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Criterion, Piccadilly Circus

The Criterion is without a doubt one of the grandest restaurants in London. Whoever the proprietors of this monument to Victorian exoticism ever are, their food can never manage to compete with the magnificent setting. Referred to by some as little more than an elephantine Turkish bath, there is certainly a lack of intimacy in this gilded cavern; chatter echoes off the tiled walls, cutlery seems to clash against china like sword against shield. And although the Byzantine elements are remarkable, there is a regiment to the decor that is coldly colonial; little English tables sit preposterously in a salon of a Sultan.

Built in 1873, along with the Criterion Theatre next door, to designs by Thomas Verity, the Criterion Restaurant (which was actually the Long Bar at the time, the Restaurant was upstairs) was to be altered, and reduced in size, less than ten years later when improvements were being made to the theatre. The auditorium was underground and had previously been gaslit. Fresh air had been pumped into the stifling theatre through a tube from the ground thirty feet above and the venerable Ministry of Works decided that this was not an appropriate form of ventilation for a centre of Art in the capital of the greatest empire in the world.
The Criterion became a dining establishment of good repute, and it remained a popular haunt of the upper-classes well into the Twentieth century. Even during World War II the Criterion complex, particularly the Blitz-safe underground theatre, continued to be a popular location with the BBC recording and broadcasting for the benefit of cheering up Blighty during the dark years of war. After the war, the Criterion declined. Theatre had been replaced by television and cinema, and the quaint elegance of a grandiloquent past was no longer attractive to a London which yearned to forget.

The inevitable occurred; the Criterion site was proposed for demolition. Post-war London planning was little more than organised destruction. What the bombs hadn't touched, the town councils and local government, drunk on the spirit of 'modernism' in the feverish and predictably ephemeral decade that was the 1960s, decided to remove. Concrete tower blocks soared above old terraced rows, glass and steel stomped on the Portland stone of old London; many of the old theatres and music halls, now considered 'surplus to requirements', were to be razed. Had it not been for the high profile support of actors like Sir John Gielgud, there would be no Criterion Theatre. And, had there been no Criterion Theatre, there would be no Restaurant.
It is gratifying to live in an age when most people consider the survival of buildings of this vintage, and this elegance, to be of the utmost importance. I shudder to think what monstrosity the 1970s architects would have drawn up for this site, located in one of the most historic and popular areas of London.

The Restaurant was formerly run by Marco Pierre White who bought it from the Forte leisure group. White decided not to play up to the fanciful decorative scheme with fanciful cuisine and instead offered classic brasserie dishes like oysters, lamb chops and Eton mess; the sort of food an Edwardian schoolboy would wolf down on a weekend in town. Eight years later, White sold the restaurant to a group headed by a Georgian entrepreneur in his early twenties. Clearly attracted by the, ahem, 'bling' interior, the enthusiastic reopening of this London classic last year met with mixed reviews. The presence of sushi on a menu at one of London's oldest dining destinations was unfathomable, as were the crushed velvet bucket chairs that looked as though they'd been pinched from a pornography conference in Las Vegas and the matchy-matchy blue silk cushion covers and curtains. Aside from the lamps, it is an amateur decorative scheme but one which, fortunately, does not distract from the physical beauty of the pillars and the glorious, glittering ceiling.

The sense of history, and occasion, in this venue is palpable. It is of a church-like scale and grandeur rarely seen in dining establishments. This fine establishment, which once echoed with the cheers and laughter of victorious soldiers; the shrill laughter of women in large hats and lace gloves and the boisterous bonhomie of boozy thespians, may be no temple to fine dining, but it never really was, it never really wanted to be and, in all honesty, we never wanted it to be either. It is simply a gorgeous jewel box in which one can happily scoff and imbibe; informally and with gusto.

224 Piccadilly, Piccadilly, London W1J 9HP


T 020 7930 0488