13 NOVEMBER 1999, Page 81


1-10W strange that so many people's enjoy- ment of restaurants should mainly be deter- mined by the politeness and proficiency of the waiting staff. What other pleasure acti- vity do we undertake on this basis? Yet in British restaurants we react ecstatically to competent service because we know poor service is most likely to be the factor which spoils our evening.

And anyway, we're not honestly very interested in the food. Far, far too many people say about whatever they eat, 'Mmm. That was really delicious' for it to be likely that they (1) gave it a second thought; (2) would either notice or care if they were given Spam fritters and spaghetti hoops instead of the jambon persille with white beans that they so portentously ordered.

Which leaves ambience, even for the foodie diner, as the often decisive factor. This explains why the restaurant business is the graveyard of so many entrepreneurial careers. Compared with atmosphere, food is easy to make.

Some restaurants, on the other hand, prosper without it. I have recently been to three. My daughter had her seventh birth- day party at the Rainforest Café. It is a dark basement full of plastic trees and polyester animals, a few of which move their heads and limbs just like real polyester animals. Every quarter of an hour or so a fake storm 'rages'. Thunder rumbles. Lightning flashes. Children are always disappointed that it doesn't rain. My daughter and her pals had a nice enough time, but even her father's admirable bonhomie failed to dispel a cer- tain sense of bemused gloom. These were London girls. They may be only seven but they are sophisticated, and they couldn't quite see the point.

They are not yet quite sophisticated enough to hate the food, but they soon will be. It is unspeakable; by far the worst I have ever had in a well-known London restaurant. I won't degrade this magazine by describing it, but I have been to the Rainforest several times (the fatal lure of the artificial chimp) and, believe me, it's filthy. Which makes it all the more baffling that the jungle tables are so packed with child-free grown-ups. I assume they must be tourists. They certainly look sufficiently miserable, but that could just be the effect of the greaseburger slime sloshing rancidly around their insides. I would hate to think that there are adults living in southern Eng land at the end of the 20th century who, having once visited this awful place for their own pleasure, would ever return.

Yet I feel the same way about the Criteri- on, at which the food cannot really be faul- ted. Never having had the slightest inclina- tion to eat at this extravagant Marco Pierre White boudoir on Piccadilly Circus, I dined there for the first time only last week. As one would expect of Marco, the food was well bought, the dishes ingeniously designed and proficiently cooked. My wife's risotto was glutinous, al dente and rich, as it should be. She enjoyed it, in spite of a deep-seated prej- udice. I can't say that my lobster was melting- ly delicious (as it is, to be fair, at White's Mirabelle) or that there was anything remarkable about it except that it was served with maccheroni. But neither was there any- thing wrong with it, and it was well priced. I found the service brusque, though my two companions strongly disagreed. When we sent back the Pouilly Fume because it was corked, our waiter brought another without batting an eyelid. The two ornate rooms are imposingly large without being too cavernous, and have been beautifully restored. Throughout the evening the restaurant was busy, creating a suitable hubbub that stopped short of being intrusive.

Yet there was absolutely no atmosphere. I've no idea who goes to the Criterion or why, but again I suspect it is largely a mix- ture of tourists and others who don't eat out in London very often. Of itself that tends not to make for the most thrilling ambience. And it begs the question of why anyone who knows better would choose to eat somewhere so formulaic, impersonal and lacking in charm. For all its efficiency, there is nothing special about the Criterion except the decor. You're better off popping in to use the bathroom.

Between the Criterion and Zilli Fish, there are two differences. Firstly, the ser- vice chez Zilli was definitely terrible. We waited ages to order things, aeons to receive them, and when they came they were the wrong things, given to the wrong people. It was typical antipodean backpack- er service: fairly friendly and almost charm- ing, but ultimately insulting you with lack of commitment.

Secondly, Zilli Fish is a girly restaurant. I do not say that to be `laddish', though I don't imagine it will do Sr Zilli's business any harm, which I regret. I merely observe that it was disproportionately full of young women, often eating together in groups, and this dictated the character of the place, though not to the extent of making it much more interesting or less soulless.

Again, the food was okay. We ordered an assiette de fruits de mer which was suitably enormous and not unreasonably priced at £30 per head. Inevitably, it came chilled and served on ice. It would be unfair to denounce too loudly Sr Zilli for such a common prac- tice, but I am always irritated by its laziness and kitchen-centricity. The delicate flavours and fragile textures of shellfish simply cannot withstand refrigeration; they are all but anni- hilated. And if it is a crime to chill a lobster, then iced fruits de mer amounts to serial delinquency. There is no reason save sloth that these potentially sublime sea-insects should not be kept live, cooked fresh and served tepid, instead of having their tingling subtleties numbed by the fridge. It's dispirit- ing enough going to restaurants which have

no reason to exist except the share price, without suffering food from which the great

natural glories have been excised for the sake of convenience.

Rainforest Café, 20 Shaftesbury Avenue, London Wl; tel: 0171 434 3111. The Criteri- on, Piccadilly Circus, London WI; tel: 0171 930 0488. Zilli Fish, 36-40 Brewer Street, London WI; tel: 0171 734 8649.