Smith & Wollensky doesn’t even serve the best steaks in Covent Garden

But you should go anyway — it’s such a strange and needy place

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

Smith & Wollensky is a restaurant from The Shining: a terrifying American steak joint by the Thames, four months old, with a £10 million refurbishment and no passing trade; it sits opposite the Georgian houses in John Adam Street, like a cow biting into a wedding cake, wondering what went wrong. It seats possibly 400 people; when I went on Sunday evening four tables were taken — one by a pointy-beard convention — and a whole floor was closed but still lit. I love this: the spectral restaurant; the restaurant from your nightmares; the restaurant at the edge of an apocalypse, boasting of butchering — and ageing — its ‘patriotic’ meat on site. I toy with the fantasy that it is empty because the regulars are at the Labour conference, planning to establish a socialist paradise in Berkshire: but I let it go. Maybe the marketing department has died.

Green is the dominant colour here; the green of the Wicked Witch of the West’s nose; and the brown of cow; and much dark gold from expensive lighting; dim globes hover like moons over the surf ’n’ turf abyss. It is a beautiful restaurant, made by America’s insane capacity for self-mythology, but it is famous for its steak. ‘The best steak in London,’ says the advertising, as if begging to be gainsaid. (It is not the best steak in London. It is probably not even the best steak in Adelphi.) But there is something gauche and needy about S&W, and this makes me like it. You can, in certain circumstances, like a restaurant where the food is not good. It is rare, but it happens.

A small drama: I book for 8.30 p.m. A woman telephones and says the kitchen will close at 8 p.m.; can we come earlier? No, we cannot; we have a tyrannical child and if I do not tuck in Peter Rabbit at the designated time, his head will blow off. OK, she says, but I offer to order in advance anyway (co-dependent, that’s me, co-dependent with restaurants): tomato and burrata salad, scallops on guacamole with bacon, two of the largest — if not the best — steaks in Adelphi and what it seems we must, so horribly, call ‘sides’.

8.30 p.m.: Motown drifts across the booths: the emptiness is thrilling. The food is not. The scallops are fat and boastful, and OK, but guacamole and horrid overfried bacon does nothing for them. The steak — a 21-ounce ‘NY Cut Bone-In-Sirloin’ (£52) and a 24-ounce ‘signature Bone-In-Rib-Eye’ (£55) — is so large I have difficulty forming any response beyond fear. This restaurant believes in redemption by size. I cannot imagine the size of the chickens, which I fear are as large as wolves; and I cannot bear to think about the lobsters at all.

Is it the best steak I have eaten in London? No, that was at Beast. It is simply large. The ‘sides’, meanwhile, are awful: lumpy chips; hash ‘browns’ (plural) which are a cold-ish cake of lumpen potato, inedible, and a potato baked god-knows-when. If you can drop £10 million on a refurbishment, you can bake a potato.

We crest the cult of large, unwisely, to the end: we order, for pudding, something from the ‘Excuses to Linger Menu’ (obesity is an excuse to linger): Gigantic Chocolate Cake. As in Immense Custard. Incalculable Crème Brulee. It comes with a churn — a churn! — of alcoholic cream and a large and soggy cow biscuit; the late-capitalist memorial cow biscuit, with Baileys Irish Cream. I have never got properly drunk on chocolate cake before. S&W is a very sinister — and therefore interesting — restaurant. Go, before it travels back to its home dimension with its cow ghosts.

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Smith & Wollensky, Adelphi Building, John Adam Street, London WC2 6HT, tel: 020 7321 6007.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    A restaurant where the kitchen closes at 8pm? Even if I wasn’t already going to give it a miss, I certainly shall now!

    • Abie Vee

      Tip. Don’t go on a Sunday. Try Wednesday (the new Friday).

  • dave1east

    “A restaurant where the kitchen closes at 8pm”, I assume they wanted to send home the zero hours workers when the say the way the bookings were going, and save a few quid that way.

    • Abie Vee

      “Sunday evening” is the clue. I can assure you, having lived in the City, that many places do not bother to open at all on Sunday’s. The trade just isn’t there… not enough to cover the electric bill. Indeed, many do not open on Saturday’s either. It really does depend, as they say, upon location.

      If this Gold woman is food critic (i’m guessing here) then she should of course have known this.

      • Atlas

        But this isn’t the City, its near the Strand!

        • Abie Vee

          Um, so is the City.

          But then I suggest you take a walk around the back streets, on a nice sunny Sunday afternoon and see how many places are NOT open. Even in Soho! It’s a matter of location. On a Sunday there are few if any local businessmen and office staff about and the Law Courts are shut… mostly the place is jammed with tourismos. And if, as this place, you are tucked away from the main drag, you don’t get much foot-fall. Tourists and day-trippers stick to the main routes, not dinky narrow little side streets.

          She should know this. But hey… she’s gotta write something, yeah?

          • Atlas

            Soho is wide open on a Sunday and that end of the Strand is busy.

          • Abie Vee

            Not when I lived there it wasn’t. I was in the hospitality trade. I didn’t open, it wasn’t worth the effort, it din’t cover the running costs. Sunday night was a graveyard.

          • Owen_Morgan

            If you didn’t bother opening, it’s not a huge surprise that you flopped.

          • edithgrove

            He didn’t say he had flopped, on the contrary he suggested he’d done well.

          • Abie Vee

            I didn’t flop. I posted elsewhere that the numbers (especially Sunday night) didn’t add up. There’s little point in opening just for the sake of it. The idea is to “TAKE MONEY”!

      • You lived in the City but you use grocer’s apostrophes? Did you sell windows or something?

        • Abie Vee

          Or something.

          City and West End mostly. But strictly nowhere outside of the M25.

          Happy happy days… LOADS-A MONEY.

          • Heh heh. I hope that you also wrote a book on HOW I DID IT (even though your experience was probably unrepeatable, just as only Arnold Schwarzenegger can be Arnold Schwarzenegger).

          • Abie Vee

            Funny you say that!

          • Oh yes…? Now we’re all curious.

          • Abie Vee

            There is one in the pipeline.

          • No kidding…. Great stuff. Of course you can’t make an announcement without blowing your cover. Unless you don’t mind that or are using a pen name.

          • Abie Vee

            You’ll work it out one day.

          • Ha!

        • edithgrove

          So is the double quotation mark considered common? It is grammatically correct.

          • Eh? I was referring to his Saturday’s and Sunday’s.

          • edithgrove

            Oh yes I do that as well. I’m glad it wasn’t the quotation marks.

          • You prefer singles? I do too, but being American as well, I have to swing both ways : )

      • thomasaikenhead

        WC2 is not in ‘The City’?

        • Abie Vee

          D’oh. What, a 10 minute stroll to Temple Bar. Yeah right. Pardon me for a 880 yards.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    tax loss, innit?

  • Jambo25

    Oatridge Hotel, Uphall, West Lothian. Really nice steak and chips (Sirloin or Rib Eye from the excellent John Lawson’s butcher shop next door.) plus a decent pint of real ale. Less than 20 quid: often a lot less. If you want to go a bit upmarket nip up the Bathgate Hills to the Champnay Inn and go to the restaurant for fine dining or the Chop House for their excellent steaks and very good South African Red wines. All 3 of these places sound wonderful and good value compared to the place featured here.

    • Tamerlane

      At least we know where to find you Jambo.

      • Jambo25

        No you don’t you creepy little man. I used to live near there but haven’t for quite some time. Try Shebeen along Dalry Road. You’re more likely to find me there.

        • Tamerlane

          You’re easier than a Panfish.

  • Freddythreepwood

    HOW MUCH?????!!!!

  • Lakanal

    I wish the Spectator would find a restaurant critic who likes restaurants.

    • I don’t. Criticism is much more entertaining than praise. And entertainment is much more valuable than simply discovering where is good to eat. If you want that kind of information, may I suggest TripAdvisor?

  • Are You Sure

    Such a shame. I went to S&W in New York about ten years ago and had one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten.

  • Andrew Wootten

    If you want good steak, you should visit the Mirage in Ilford. Delicious!