Harden's survey result
“Top choice when meeting up is more important than the food!” – Richard Caring’s “brisk” modern brasseries are “a cut-above most other chains” and were once again the survey’s most-mentioned national multiple, on the strength of their “very convenient” and often picturesque locations; and an experience generally that’s “safe” and affordable (set menus in particular are very “competitively priced”). That said, even many of its legions of fans don’t suggest that their performance will set the world on fire: “menus offer a range of formulaic dishes, some more wowing than others”, with “basic options such as steak-frites” or burger often touted as the best of the “rather unadventurous” selection. “Service can vary” but usually “problems are swiftly resolved” and staff keep things “speedy” enough.
These “accurate imitations of a well-run French brasserie” have become the survey’s most-mentioned chain, on the strength of the huge army of fans who find them an “always-dependable” standby. The “perfectly acceptable” food “is quite good when you factor in the price”: “stick to their basic menus and you get a quite a good-value meal (although stray onto the more expensive dishes and you are better off going elsewhere)”. The wide range of options – including breakfast and prix-fixe pre-theatre – means there’s “plenty of choice for different appetites”. Unlike some chains there’s no effort to make outlets individual: “every branch is cut from the same cloth, but that’s no bad thing”.
“You know what you’re going to get” from this ubiquitous French brasserie chain: a formula that’s “classier than Café Rouge’s”, and whose “easy and convenient, if uninspiring” virtues nowadays make it the survey’s most-mentioned multiple. The “classic bistro fare” is “formulaic but edible” (steak-frites is a popular choice) and while service is “hit or miss” and conditions often “noisy”, the “sensible pricing” especially of lunch or pre-theatre deals underpins its massive popularity.
“As a useful port of call”, these “safe” all-day French brasseries remain immensely popular, especially for their “bargain set lunch”, and pre-theatre deals. However, even many fans would concede that the “straightforward” fare is “solid but unspectacular”.
In Soho, the second member of a new Gallic bistro chain (brought to you by many of the people who created Strada); it's a useful enough place, in a chain sort of way, and friendly too, but our visit found the cooking uninspired.
We are getting more and more preoccupied by the bistro question. Why, with so few exceptions, is London - culinary capital of the world, blah, blah - incapable of re-creating the virtues of the simplest sort of Gallic eatery?
Much of the problem seems to be with the most basic food, or rather absence of it. How often do you got into something that looks like your proper Gallic eatery only to be confronted with bread whose appearance, flavour and consistency immediately make clear that you are in anything but? Too often. To win that ultimate Gallic endorsement - 'très correct' - a bistro needs to offers bread cut from something resembling a classic baguette, fluffy inside and with a proper golden crust (or if it's the trendier sort of bistro, perhaps an equally crusty pain de campagne).
But here at this second outlet, in Soho, of a new chain by the former Strada people, you part with your £1.50 - bread is not compris, Ã la franÃ§aise - and you get slices cut from some sort of peculiar sourdough baguette: not only wrong, but in this particular case also dry and uninviting. (And, yes, we do know it's difficult to get a decent baguette in London, but you can can some pretty good country breads, if you try).
At the bread-disappointment moment, it was tempting to give up, pronounce another failure, and leave. But we persevered. The service, after all, had been very welcoming, and the setting was pleasant enough, And the food - as it turns out - is not so much bad as boring. Our £25-odd (all in) lunch for one comprised, in addition to aforesaid bread, an uninteresting and sludgy soup, an underseasoned and fractionally overcooked steak, some tolerable frites, a decent crème brûlée and a bitter coffee.
Perfectly useful then, pre-theatre or whatever, or for a quick business lunch, but pretty much impossible to recommend as any sort of 'destination'.
Last orders: 11 pm, Thu-Sat midnight, Sun 10.30 pm