Thursday, 13 August 2009

A Very Un-Stuffy British Institution

Dining at the Criterion is more than just having dinner; it is an experience. The restaurant does not look that remarkable from the outside, especially in the face of the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus, but when you walk through the revolving doors you cannot help but be struck by the décor.

The Criterion Restaurant is stunningly beautiful, a showcase of marble and mosaic. It’s exotic and elegant in the same breath, with rich fabrics hanging at the windows, mirrored walls, and a gold mosaic ceiling you cannot help but stare at open-mouthed. It’s said that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first imagined the meeting between Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes while having a drink at the Criterion Long Bar and it is a scene that is not at all hard to picture. In fact, if you changed the dress worn by patrons today to that of another era, it would be easy to believe you had stepped back in time. In the past, the Criterion has witnessed diners as illustrious as Winston Churchill, G K Chesterton and H G Wells. The suffragettes met there, as did many other groups including the Royal College of Science. It has also been used for films; most recently scenes from ‘The Dark Night’ and ‘A Good Year’ were shot there.

The Criterion Restaurant is located in Piccadilly Circus, right in the heart of the theatre district. In fact, it is adjacent to a theatre of the same name. Since the 1870’s, both theatre and restaurant have been a huge part of life in the West End.

But most of all, the Criterion is a wonderful place to eat. It is not just the décor that harks back to another era; the service does too. It is unfailing polite, efficient and discreet all at the same time. Although you will be offered bottled water, no one sniffs if you ask for tap water; in fact it will be presented to you in a decorative glass bottle (and no, there is no charge).

If you fancy something with a bit more kick, the Long Bar serves up just about any cocktail you can dream of, and there is a wonderful selection of wines at all price points – by the bottle and the glass.

I know from pleasant experience that the menu changes regularly, but it always offers a fine selection of dishes. Their seafood is outstanding and all sustainably sourced. They also offer a pre or post theatre set menu that is available Monday to Saturday lunchtime and evening. It was this menu my husband and I dined from on Saturday evening before going to watch our son perform at Her Majesty’s Theatre in The Haymarket. Offering a selection of five choices within each course, it is one of the most varied set menus I have yet to come across.

I started with the Charentais Melon and Parma Ham. The serving was incredibly generous and it was absolutely delicious. My husband had their Smoked Salmon with Horseradish Cream and pronounced it the best smoked salmon he had ever eaten. He can speak with some authority on this, having eaten quite a lot of smoked salmon in his time.

For main course, I chose pan-fried line caught Cornish Pollock with White Cabbage and Red Grapes. The dish was beautifully presented and absolutely delicious. It came accompanied by crushed new potatoes. I was pleased to be eating a fish that had been sustainably sourced and impressed that the menu emphasized this. My husband chose Braised British ‘Rose’ Veal, with Horseradish and a Celeriac Remoulade. ‘Rose’ veal is the only veal available in Britain, and is raised without the cruelty of veal crates, so this dish was politically correct as well as being very tasty indeed.

We had not intended to have dessert, but the choices proved far too tempting. I was particularly impressed, as some restaurants do not put their best desserts on a set menu, in the hopes of tempting you off it, but The Criterion’s set menu offered a selection of four tempting treats and some very yummy sounding cheese. In the end, I chose the Pecan Pie with Orange Syllabub and my husband had the Coffee Tiramisu. Both were divine. I’m sorry, but there is no other word for them.

The West End is notorious for expensive restaurants that are less than generous, but The Criterion is not one of these. Our meal cost about £40 (about US$65) per head, including two glasses of wine and a bottle of beer. This also included the tip. For the location, this is positively reasonable, and very good value indeed.

I highly recommend The Criterion. It’s quintessentially British with a touch of the Continent, and an experience you will not soon forget.

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