Quaglino’s: Good value, but very uninspiring (April 2014)

Almost every regular London restaurant-goer recognises that one of the most exciting things about dining in the city is the dynamism of the restaurant scene, the variety, the reinvention. Diners can find everything from the traditional and effortlessly successful to the more edgy, emerging and hipster-populated. Quite where Quaglino’s sits on this spectrum is unclear. Maybe twenty years ago it was a ‘destination’ restaurant, akin to the Atlantic Bar & Grill. Now, as a recent lunch attested, the place feels decidedly dated, perhaps living off its reputation more than anything else. In Quaglino’s defence, maybe a mid-week lunchtime did not show the restaurant at its best: on this occasion, the impressively large and 1930s-style dining area felt cavernous and desolated, a bit like a nightclub the morning after a party. Even by the time we left (at 1.45pm), there were fewer than ten tables occupied. Perhaps owing to the lack of people, the staff seemed most unenthusiastic, almost resentful at being there. One might have thought that they would have enjoyed not being rushed off their feet; in reality, they were either dreaming of better times or, more likely, just not bothered. Even generating a smile seemed an effort. So, why did we even go in the first place? My dining comrades were after a quick and cheap lunch near Green Park and were also rushed for time. At £15/head, Quaglino’s ‘love lunch’ menu held some obvious appeal. For both the starters and mains, there was a range of five dishes, a good spread across meat, fish and veggie options, primarily modern European and brasserie-style in nature. The descriptions of the dishes promised much more than the reality. For the starters, my comrade’s sweetcorn and beef soup with lime and coriander appeared somewhat reminiscent of the sort of institutional-style dish I remember being served in communal college dining halls; my other comrade opted for the chicken Cambodian salad, which looked just as if some chicken and salad had literally been dumped on the plate with zero consideration given to presentation; and, my smoked mackerel with roast aubergine tasted as if the fish had come straight from a tin with an unidentifiable flavourless muck then spread on top. The mains were somewhat better: my steamed sea bream with jasmine rice, sautéed courgette and almonds constituted an interesting combination, well-presented and executed fairly competently. My comrades seemed to enjoy their slow roast lamb and pork respectively, although in the case of the latter, ‘cheek’ (as specified on the menu) was substituted inexplicably for ‘neck’ with our server insisting that the taste and the composition of these two body parts would be unnoticeable. We just stuck with water and so did not get to sample or assess their range of drinks, although the wine list did appear to have been composed with some thought. In summary: even with just a budget of £15 (which obviously rose once sides, soft drinks and service were included), it is possible to do considerably better in London, even in the St James’/ Green Park area.