Holborn Dining Room, London, restaurant review

Date:13-05-2014 07:58:05 read:0

Holborn Dining Room, London, restaurant review

The latest grand, all-day brasserie to open near the Rosewood Hotel is a vibrant and engaging restaurant, more 'New Yorky' than its rivals

Holborn Dining Room: 'Vibrant and engaging' Photo: Martin Pope

Billy Joel sang about his “Uptown Girl”; conversely, Petula Clark cajoled miserable New Yorkers to go Downtown. But no recording artist has yet immortalised an urban locale of such unalleviated anonymity that it goes by designation of “Midtown”.

Until recently, London knew no such entity. But thanks to the imagination for which the noble trade of estate agency is beloved, it does now. Midtown is the new, Manhattanish styling for the soulless, ugly, office-dominated area that is not far from the Strand, on the edge of the legal district, a brief stroll from Oxford Street, and not quite Covent Garden. While it may have its hidden treasures, the only attraction to lure me there over the past decade is the six-monthly dentist’s appointment, which may sum up its appeal well enough.

When an area is given a cool new name, it needs a cool new restaurant attached to underscore the coolness, and this service has been undertaken by the Rosewood Hotel. Attached to the magnificently marbled former home of Pearl Assurance is not only the Scarfe Bar, in which midtown’s jeunesse dorée may forget all their troubles (and forget all their cares) by gazing at savage cartoons by Gerald Scarfe over cocktails, but also Holborn Dining Room, the latest in an endless sequence of grand, all-day brasseries to have opened within a mile radius of this building in the past few years.

While it has much in common with such feted trailblazers as the Wolseley, it is less Mitteleuropean and more New Yorky than its rivals, while the first sight to catch the eye branded itself on my mind as unique. “I don’t want to alarm you,” I murmured to the young chap behind the reception desk, “but there’s a man wandering about over there who must have escaped from somewhere with worryingly low security.”

While this bald, white-bearded character was a dead ringer for the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-era Lionel Jeffries, his sartorial ensemble resembled nothing I had seen before. Matched (if that’s the correct term) to a blue-and-white striped shirt was a three-piece suit in a lurid check of pink and red. “Oh, no, sir,” said the young chap, glancing around, “that’s our head maître d’.” As the man whose card revealed him as Jon Spiteri led me to the table, I asked him if there was a technical name for the check. “I have all my suits made in Tangier,” he replied, as if that answered the question: and if you find yourself in that Moroccan city, keep an eye out for a colour-blind mescaline addict wielding a needle.

Despite the eccentric garb, Spiteri is an outstanding manager of the kind that is central to the success of a joint such as this, where the cooking takes the bronze on the podium of priorities behind service and ambience. A vast space done out with copper-topped bars, deep red leather banquettes and antique mirrors was rammed with those drawn by the vibe. “I’ve eaten here in two previous manifestations when it was solemn and depressing,” said my friend over good bread, nuts and olives, “and this a huge improvement.”


From a primarily traditionalist English menu running the full uptown-downtown gamut from lobster to a fish finger sandwich, my friend showed due sensitivity for the demands of the austerity age by kicking off with the lobster. “All the flavour is from the mayonnaise,” he said, as if in the midst of an epiphany that lobster tastes of virtually nothing. My smoked mackerel salad had more to say for itself, thanks primarily to a crispy fried hen’s egg, a lovely vinaigrette and lashings of chicory.

During the inter-course hiatus, a junior maître d’ popped over to tell my friend he recognised him from the Wolseley. With his neat black beard, ponytail and sharp black suit, this one resembled a hitman in an early Tarantino movie more than an Edwardian rails bookmaker, but his gift for making a punter feel valued and important echoed that of his garishly clad colleague.

Seduced as we were by the schmoozing and atmosphere, one of the main courses broke the spell. My corned beef hash, also topped with an egg (in this case, a duck’s) was well made, if a little oversalted. My friend’s Angus beef and Stilton pie was filled with flavourless, stringy slices of stewing steak. “I was expecting chunks,” he said. “You know me, I do like a pie. This is a major disappointment.”

The sweetness of a waiter who told us he recently left his home in Bakewell obliged us to order the Bakewell tart, and a generous disc of impeccable pastry came with genteel raspberry ripple ice cream. We also shared a steamed treacle and whisky pudding with custard, and it would take an act of sabotage for a chef to go wrong with those ingredients.


Over coffee and the dregs of a delicious Clos La Coutale, a malbec-merlot hybrid, we were serenaded first by Bryan Ferry, most self-consciously uptown of crooners, and then by those unmistakably downtown punksters the Clash. Midtown may await its first musical icon and defining song, but in Holborn Dining Room at least it has a restaurant with a more vibrant and engaging personality than the area perhaps deserves.

*Holborn Dining Room, 252 High Holborn, London WC1V 7EN; 0203 747 8633; Three courses with wine and coffee, £50-£60 per head

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