Tuesday, 17 September 2013
Wandering aimlessly around Piccadilly a few weeks back (everyone in Piccadilly is wandering around aimlessly; nobody goes there on purpose. Why would you?) I happened upon a row of bars and restaurants that even for this deeply unambitious area of town looked particularly unappealing. Heddon Street has, at one end, one of those "ice bars" where you put on a silly fur coat and drink hugely marked-up frozen vodka in a big freezer, at the other a gloomy corporate brasserie seemingly transplanted from somewhere awful like Epsom where hen and office parties drink pints of Stella and shout at each other in the dark, and in between a collection of family-friendly Italians where you can eat Spaghetti Bolognese for £15, all very thinly populated by bewildered tourists.
All except one, that is. Vegetarian restaurant Tibits was - and is - doing a roaring trade, every table taken inside and out, with a healthy queue of punters at the bar and many more encircling the large central buffet. The contrast between here and the other joints on Heddon Street was so marked that it made me wonder if it could be the first non-Indian vegetarian restaurant worth bothering with, so this week I returned with a friend to see what all the fuss was about.
Well, you can colour me baffled. You would hope that, in 2013 and in London, paying over the odds to throw together on one plate various bits of badly-cooked food of wildly differing geographical origins wouldn't be a concept with much appeal. But the staggering number of people willing to do exactly that is proof, if nothing else, that just when you think you know London's restaurant-going public, they'll pull the rug out from under your feet.
Every bit of the Tidbits experience seems designed to irritate. Firstly, you need to find yourself a table, which given the crowds I've already mentioned, isn't easy. Then in order to actually eat you need to get up and leave your table, and as there are no front of house staff to speak of (save a couple of bartender/cashiers and the occasional person refilling the buffet) the only way of guaranteeing your spot won't be stolen by someone else is to leave a bag or item of clothing draped over your chair. Fine if you have something suitable, not really very handy if it's midsummer and you're travelling light.
Then the food. Never has London's current trend for uber-specialisation in restaurants (rotisserie chicken, burgers, steak) been shown in a better light than by a buffet containing a massive variety of dishes with absolutely nothing in common other than their ineptitude. Initially seduced by the sound of the jalapeño poppers (breaded, deep-fried chillis stuffed with cheese) and the novelty of being able to load as much guacamole as I wanted onto my plate, I realised I'd painted myself into a Tex-Mex corner and found little else suitable to accompany them other than some potato wedges and a couple of onion rings.
But I was hardly any better off after my attempts at geographical consistency than those fellow diners loading up their plates with sushi rice, pasta penne and poppadums - none of it was any good. Once we'd queued for the weigh-in and paid (it's all sold by weight, regardless of the dish) and struggled back to our table, tasting revealed bland, mushy Iceland freezer brownfood jalapeño poppers, overcooked onion rings you could have used as plumbing, truly awful commodity guacamole that betrayed only a fleeting relationship with avocado, and some unnervingly crunchy kidney beans.
Speaking of crunchy, a friend's potato gratin was undercooked and inedible, and some creamed spinach was seemingly completely unseasoned. So the problems with the food went deeper than mere incoherence - there were actual mistakes being made and some of this stuff should never have left the kitchen. It's not even that cheap - each of our hardly generous dinners cost the best part of £20 once we'd added wine, a sum that would have got you a couple of lovely courses of Venetian seafood at Polpo on Beak St, a few minutes walk away.
And yet, the place was rammed. Not just with naive tourists either - I saw groups of work colleagues, couples on dates, families with small children. Queuing up to get in, queuing up to load their plates with quiche and moussaka and Thai vegetable curry (together), then queueing to pay. Tibits is little better than a hospital canteen with an alcohol license but it wasn't just turning over, it was popular. It makes absolutely no sense at all. So before I give myself a migraine trying to get my head round it, I'm going to stop talking about it and go and do something else. Then maybe I'll have a little lie down.