Brasserie Zédel is a grand salon under Piccadilly Circus and the only place I desired when lockdown (or lock-in) ceased and I was allowed to visit London. It is, for me — and everyone is different in their yearnings — everything a restaurant should be: very beautiful; well run (by Corbin & King of the Wolseley and the Delaunay); not insultingly priced; and, as it is windowless, pleasingly unreal: an enchanted basement, if you will — a depository for dreams.
I arrive early on the first night, walking through silent London, resisting the urge to lie down in the road. This used to be the Regent Palace Hotel, the grand hotel of Soho. The restaurant was its dining room: Edwardiana at its most gilded and absurd. It is pinks and golds, columns and rails, but it works. It summons its dreamscape, as if it has practised for it since the lights went out. It is La Coupole in Paris but more delicate, imaginative and tender. La Coupole is Paris’s greatest brasserie, but it is still offensively brown and brusque, and the paintings are terrible. If you can tolerate so much pink, there can’t be a prettier restaurant than this. I find it comforting — Zédel is a work of art by itself — but I always find food comforting. Paid-for dining is returning to what made you happy once; or what you thought would make you happy. Pandemic magnifies this tendency: to look back in hunger.
At the door I place my face in front of a machine that takes my temperature. This feels normal now, or at least not so weird that I would not do it. People are adaptable, and I would do far more to eat out than this. After three more Domino’s pizzas I would probably offer to sever my hand and tear out my eyes. We slide in, touch the cutlery — cutlery feels subversive now, perhaps there is a series of anxiety dreams in it — and watch the room fill up, which it does swiftly, with those who look ecstatic. It is not an early dinner on a Saturday evening in a lavish basement in Soho. It is a festival. A man sits alone near the clock, as if this is something he has schemed for. Some women are in full evening dress, at five o’clock. I love this madness. I love the idiocy, and hope, of people. I wonder why everyone is not dressed for dining out in Gigi. I wonder why there are not more hats.
Brasserie Zédel seated 450 people pre-pandemic, so social distancing — a vile phrase — is easy here. It is fully booked tonight, with every other table taken. We ape the dining of before, though nervously. We take menus; we choose food; we order food. That, after three months of home cooking and take-out boxes, is easy: a spinach quiche; a rib-eye steak; profiteroles and chocolate sauce; a chocolate mousse. I cannot judge fairly because I am famished for what I am addicted to — the practised love of a great restaurant. The food comes quickly: a quiche of great precision and taste, almost an angry quiche — but chefs are as addicted to cooking as diners are to eating — steak as it should be, and chocolate mousse of wondrous depth. This is a very dependable kind of love; the kind that is paid for. A great restaurant charges the right price for it.
Music was planned to celebrate reopening, but the band was not allowed to play, for fear of transmitting infection. No song, then, to lament the restaurants that are lost, or celebrate those that, for now, survive. This is a trade whose life hangs by a hair, but you wouldn’t know it here. Just the food, then; and the food is perfect.
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Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, London W1F 7ED, tel: 020 7734 4888. www.brasseriezedel.com
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