I’ve left restaurants hungry before. I’ve left restaurants happy, angry, full, thirsty, drunk and sleepy. But I can’t remember a restaurant, despite delivering acceptable food and acceptable service, making me feel insulted. Polpo did, and its owner has repeatedly compounded it by being unforgivably sanctimonious in print and on screen, preaching about how seriously he takes the customer’s sense of well-being while all the while treating them with disdain.
By the end I sat in his flagship restaurant, packed with punters, slack-jawed with astonishment at the conjuring trick this man has pulled off. If the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick a restaurateur ever pulled was convincing the world that this place is deserving of any more than immediate receivership. It’s no wonder that Russell Norman has been mentoring aspiring restaurant-owners on his own television series – the man has a magic touch. He’s a genius, of sorts. An evil, swivel-chaired, cat-stroking genius. Being taught how to run a restaurant by Russell Norman is like taking lessons in how to use a light sabre from Emperor Palpatine himself. He might convert you to the dark side, but damn you’ll have some skills.
Polpo is a Soho-based bàcaro – “a Venetian word to describe a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young local wines” – that launched to great acclaim in 2010 and has been packed ever since.
“It’s a sort of Italian tapas bar that looks as if it’s been cleverly transported from Greenwich Village,” AA Gil wrote in the Sunday Times. “I love eating in New York, and I particularly like this ambience: relaxed and friendly, but also funny and welcoming. The lighting flatters, and the menu is your table mat. The place was humming with happy diners, and if you are young and want a cheap, good, fun date restaurant, there really isn’t a better one in London.”
“It’s a jolly nice place,” reckoned Giles Coren in the Times. “Max and I stood around for maybe 40 minutes by the bar, drinking a bit more than one would normally want to on an empty stomach and only a couple of times being shoulder-slammed by a bustling waitress and spilling our drinks on our shoes. Then suddenly we were at a lovely table, deep in the warm hustle of the place. From the warmth and comfort of the table, you first of all forget your long wait, and then begin to look back on it fondly as having been the very best of times, much as a married man looks back fondly on single days which were, in truth, full of nothing but the fear that they would never end.”
Observer Food Monthly made it their restaurant of the year in 2013. “A great menu of gutsy food at a price which, by London standards, didn’t make your eyes water, delivered by staff who seemed more interested in you than the angle of the cutlery on the table. It became the place for a greaseless fritto misto, for duck ragus, for robust, bitter salads, impeccable flatbreads, and earthy wines poured into tumblers like they were shots of Jim Beam. It’s the kind of effortless cool that takes serious work.”
It’s a no-reservations restaurant. I’m not going to criticise it for that, however deserving – you know the deal when you turn up. But unlike most other no-reservation restaurants, in between turning up to put your name on the list and getting a table you’re not allowed out of the building. So you’re forced into a small subterranean cocktail bar/holding pen which, depending on the precise time of your arrival, will either be horribly packed or about to be horribly packed. Eventually you’re snagged on a metaphorical shepherd’s hook and led upstairs to your table. This is all done to make life convenient for the restaurateur at the customer’s expense, but it’s a deal I’d make so long as it stopped when I was seated. It doesn’t.
With the help of our waitress we ordered half a dozen things that made some kind of sense, but then they arrive in any order the kitchen desires. So while some meatballs might have got on fine with a very mildly glorified cauliflower cheese, they didn’t have much to say to the fritto misto they arrived with, while the cauliflower was served up, ludicrously, alongside a salmon tartare. Wine is served in humble beakers, which I don’t object to in principle so long as it is humble wine, but instead they sell wine whose qualities will be lost in this environment – the list goes up to £67 a bottle. Our table was by the gangway, so our empty plates were whisked away immediately by cheerful staff. The table beside ours had to stack theirs up when they were finished.
The one pleasant surprise was that we weren’t then told to wash up, and that we had to pay for that as well. This is a restaurant that does nothing exceptionally except take your money and usher you out the door, to make way for whichever poor souls are at that moment desperately entombed in the holding pen. Making people queue for this for five years and counting is an achievement worthy of every award Norman has ever been given, but I for one won’t be darkening these doors again.
If you want small plates in central London, every restaurant in the Salt Yard group does more interesting food, lets you book a table, does a better job with wine and is infinitely preferable in every possible way. There’s Terroirs and its siblings. There is, in other words, choice, and plenty of it. Enough to leave Polpo very well alone.
ps Sorry about the not posting for a month and a half business. I’ve been in a funk.