As we all know, value is relative. London is often synonymous with expense but really, by and large, London restaurants are fairly priced. In fact, when you consider the bill you pay is not just covering the ingredients (in some cases more expensive because of Brexit), application of skilled cookery to those ingredients, the staff, overheads and allowing for a gnat’s wing of a profit margin, you’re positively getting a bargain.
Still, a quick look through the menu at The Ritz Garden – the famous hotel’s al fresco terrace – did make me wince. A friend of mine refused to accompany me on principle. “A £25 sandwich is a £25 sandwich,” he said. “I’m going to Ciao Bella instead. You have fun.”
I don’t blame him really. And interestingly, since my visit, the food menu has been taken offline. I’m not jumping to any conclusions about the lack of transparency there but I kept the evidence on my phone anyway (tee-hee). So here you go: standard-issue club sandwiches start at £25 (there are more expensive ones with certain bolt-ons); a cheeseburger is £28; a simply-assembled bowl of burrata with tomatoes is £24 (thrice the price of the same dish at Casa Tua). And none of those will blow you away gastronomically. Really, this is somewhere to enjoy the ambience of a secret garden attached to a world-class hotel but without the stiff formality of their main Michelin-starred restaurant.
Well, at £100 a head for essentially bar snacks and a couple of drinks you expect something world-class. On arrival in a polo shirt, light linen jacket and chinos (the smartest look I could muster on the hottest day of the year) the doorman eyed me up and down like I was a Dickensian street urchin. My telepathy skills aren’t what they once were but I could intuit he was saying “you’re not here for the restaurant are you?” (The main restaurant famously has an uber-strict dress code). Anything less than a suit and tie, despite being 33 degrees, and you must be escorted past the other guests, out of sight and out of mind like The Elephant Man. I get the tradition of it all, the pomp, the ridiculousness, but can an exception be made in a heatwave?
On this visit the service was generally good but clearly the higher standards had been reserved for the main restaurant. Lots of factors could have been at play here: the endemic staff shortages at the moment, or simply the insane heat frazzling everyone’s brains. The heat had appeared to get to my waiter whose demeanour was lackadaisical at best, though I did sympathise with him having to wear a jacket. Not his fault either – the sartorial policy borders on the inhumane.
I was slightly less forgiving about the inordinate 30 minute wait for a Caesar salad (seriously, how long does it take to make a salad?) as well as the forgotten wine order which somehow ended up on the bill twice. The gin in the Negroni isn’t disclosed on the menu but I saw the outdoor bartender swig a 25ml jigger shot of Bombay Sapphire into the mixing glass. The finished result, complete with an origami twist of orange peel that invades your nostrils with every sip, is yours for £23.
The aim, I think, is to let you momentarily forget you’re in central London and instead at George Clooney’s Italianate villa in Lake Como sipping espressos. And heck, we need that kind of escapism right now. It achieves this… until you hear the commotion of Green Park and smell the fumes from the number 9 bus screeching past. Perhaps that’s a bit harsh when they’ve clearly done a lot of work to make it look lovely, and it indeed it is, but it needs a pretty big fig leaf to disguise its actual location.
Value is one of those things that’s fiendishly difficult to define but I suppose it comes down to whether you feel you’ve spent more than the quality of the experience really justifies. Fish goujons and a simple glass of Chablis coming to £60 is a drop in the ocean for the hotel’s regular clientele, I suspect, but the dishes and drinks I had just could’ve been anywhere else and for a fraction of the cost. It’s a pleasant place serving competently-prepared light dishes and drinks, but one can’t help feeling the self-inflicted impoverishment isn’t really worth it.
by J A Smith