Much better value than its parent establishment (in Marylebone), this first branch of a proto-chain, near Holborn tube, offers a sensibly short menu of bistro staples (and pizzas too) at reasonable prices; it was already remarkably busy on our early-days visit.
The original Villandry foodstore-cum-café, in Marylebone, has often seemed to be something of a missed opportunity. We were therefore rather surprised by the standards at this new ‘all-day café and bistro’, which is apparently conceived as the first member of a small chain: it really is one of those what’s-not-to-like places.
The comfort level is exactly what you’d reasonably hope for, and there was a notably buzzy feel to the place when we visited towards the end of a Friday lunch service. The décor mercifully lacks any of the aspirational over-lit self-consciousness that Carluccio’s has made a sort of trademark. Nor are there the grating attempts at ‘authenticity’ which can backfire so badly unless the level of achievement is very high indeed – yes, we’re thinking of Côte. Service was excellent, too – friendly, and trying hard.
And the food? Well, it wasn’t amazing, but it was consistently enjoyable, which is as high an aim as any mass market chain outlet can ever realistically hope to achieve. Three courses – onion soup, a tasty slice of tart ‘n’ salad, and a cheesecake and ice cream – maintained solid standards. With good bread (not phony baguette, hurrah!), reasonable coffee and a glass of wine, the bill came to £25, plus tip. (In reality, we suspect that this is the sort of place – open all day as it is – where most punters will tend to spend rather less.)
If there is a caveat, and there usually is, it is that this is the first outlet in what is apparently conceived as a small chain. Even making allowances for this, we thought this place was pretty impressive – more satisfactory than the early-days Côtes, for example. The real test of any chain, however, is how it fares as it grows.
Well, not just chains: when it comes to dining out, increasing the scale of operations is too often accompanied by a decline in standards. When celeb (and other) chefs tell you otherwise, they’re deluding themselves. Or, more likely, you.