Review: fine dining in the post-lockdown era

Guy Woodward takes the temperature of the re-opened London restaurant scene at one of the capital’s most august establishments

Words by Guy Woodward

The Wolseley

‘Good evening sir – delightful to see you. Now if I could just ask you to stand in front of this screen for a quick temperature check…’

If I was under any illusion that returning to a restaurant for the first time in 100 days would be just like slipping into a familiar, well-fitting old suit, it was shattered within seconds of stepping into The Wolseley. In truth, such a notion had been disabused an hour earlier when slipping – squeezing? – into said suit, its previously reassuring contours rendered far from well-fitting by the excesses of lockdown home-cooking.

Undeterred, I nobly donned my face mask for the tube ride to the sunlit uplands of W1 (while dispensing disapproving looks to those not complying, and making a mental note to upbraid them on my Twitter feed later on). The date had been boldly inked into my otherwise wholly blank diary with unseemly haste once re-opening was confirmed. The thought of having dinner cooked by someone who knew how to render a steak medium-rare without having to skewer it multiple times en route, of having it brought to the table without having to first clear away the detritus of a day’s office duties, and of generally being fawned over without having to first negotiate dishwasher duties was mildly intoxicating.

I had few qualms about doing so in a room with dozens of other people – though the fact that the cavernous environs of The Wolesley’s grand dining room are so generously proportioned was, perhaps subconsciously, a factor when it came to deciding where to book for the grand return. Part of me felt we should support one of our independent local spots in our west London neighbourhood – or even one of the many fine foodie pubs in W6. But then part of me wanted the occasion to be an event, an outing, an excuse to dress up. And, vain type that I am, the latter urge won out.

The Wolseley interior
The generous proportions of The Wolesley’s dining room were a factor when it came to Woodward’s choice of where to book for the grand return

I was fully prepared to undertake an array of health-related admin pre-arrival. Indeed I was half expecting an email to arrive, advising us of the new dining etiquette, but none was forthcoming. I went to their website to see what would be required of us – but there was no indication of anything out of the ordinary. Later I was told the restaurant was ‘kindly asking each customer to access our wifi on a mobile phone on arrival, where you can fill out your details to assist with track and trace,’ but no such request was made of us, kindly or otherwise; neither was the advertised hand sanitiser evident, despite the restaurant’s official line being that this was among the new measures.

In fact, the temperature check was, to all intents and purposes, the only tangible nod to the circumstances. It was completed via an impressively efficient and discreet sort of face cam,  the sort you get at passport control (but without the need to step into an isolating chamber) and which induce the same sort of momentary trepidation, where you know everything is in order, but still have an irrational fear of being tapped on the shoulder and being asked to follow a stern-faced official into a side room. Fortunately, at 36.3C, my reading was reassuringly on the cool side, the light flashed green, and we were in.

I felt slightly furtive as we were quietly shown to our table, buoyed by a sort of illicit thrill. The room was somehow full but not busy. The already widely spaced tables had alternate settings left empty, to allow for generous spacing. Those in use were occupied by small groups of twos and fours, largely families, from what I could make out, with the odd (in both senses of the word) coupling of older, creased gent and younger, pristine woman that one tends to find in this part of Mayfair.

Barely had the keen, affable waiter welcomed us than I’d blurted out my even keener craving for a whisky sour. In fact so keen was I that I forgot to stipulate bourbon rather than Scotch. No matter – in the circumstances, its medicinal tang felt rather fitting.

There were, though, no outward signs that we were still in the midst of a pandemic. No one-way traffic systems or oppressive perspex partitions, and nary a mask or glove in sight. The menus are not disposable, but had apparently been covered with a special lamination so they could be disinfected after each use – though we saw no evidence of this. Government guidelines issued to restaurants ahead of re-opening were just that – advice rather than legal requirements, and The Wolesley seemed to have given them a quick scan and then decided to interpret them with what the prime minister would doubtless refer to as ‘good British common sense’.

The clearest nod to the situation came on a trip to the bathrooms, via conspicuous signage. You got the feeling The Wolesley was filled with self-loathing at having to articulate such vulgarities as a maximum of two patrons at a time, putting one urinal out of use, and encouraging customers to close the lid before flushing. Nonetheless, here the hand sanitiser was manifestly evident.

Wine at the Wolseley
The waiters seem to have mastered service post-lockdown: “a spectacularly appointed coq au vin was dispatched without incident – or undue fanfare”

Closer inspection and good-natured chat with our eager waiter revealed further paddling going on beneath the surface: the bread basket and condiments are sterilised in 9OC water after each table sitting; the whole table (and seating) is disinfected and fully reset before the arrival of the next guests; waiters use hand sanitiser from a discreet cleaning station after each table visit, wash their hands every 30 minutes and are under instruction not to switch directly between tables; we were served our food by the same waiter all night.

‘We’ve had quite a few training sessions,’ he told us. ‘But it takes time to get used to.’ From our vantage point, the staff seemed to have it down pat. Tomato and basil gazpacho, cheese and mushroom souffle and a spectacularly appointed coq au vin were all dispatched without incident – or undue fanfare. It felt like staff had been told to avoid any unnecessary interaction, meaning that those painful enquiries as to your wellbeing, and the constant topping up of water and wine were mercifully absent.

Also absent, though, was that intangible buzz, that carefree chatter, the raucous laughter, the general bustle and energy that an all-day brasserie should bring. The Maitre d’ was admirably doing the rounds, thanking customers for coming and generally dispensing bonhomie. But ultimately, the vibe was one of a fine, efficient restaurant doing its best to soldier on with a huge elephant parked in the middle of the room.

I left feeling sated but slightly guilty over having marked re-opening by swelling the coffers of an already well-financed clutch of restaurants. The first thing I did on returning home – after loosening the waistband of my trousers – was to book into our local pub for dinner next week.