Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The Delaunay, Aldwych

However much fun it's been having so many days off work over the festive period (due apologies and commiserations to those who haven't, of course) it is frighteningly easy, after two weeks of late nights and lie-ins and general dossing about, to lose track of time completely. I strolled into Soho yesterday afternoon with the intention of toasting the New Year at Bob Bob Ricard, only to find it disconcertingly dark and empty and, well, closed. As indeed was Polpo. And Wright Bros. And Dehesa. Turns out yesterday was a bank holiday, a fact I probably should have been aware of, but - to cut a long story short - wasn't. Increasingly frantic, not to mention hungry, I vaguely recalled some Twitter activity centred around newly opened Delaunay in Aldwych, and a grovelly phonecall and 5 minute cab ride later, I and a couple of friends found ourselves in seemingly the only restaurant open on 2nd January in the centre of London.

A lunch of convenience, perhaps, but that's not to say I wasn't looking forward to it. Sister restaurant The Wolseley was never really my cup of tea - sure they do a very nice Eggs Benedict but £13.50? We are still talking about ham and eggs aren't we, not Beluga Caviar? - but the buzz surrounding this latest place was deafening. Fay Maschler swooned, TimeOut gushed, and the word from various first-week visitors was universally, uniformly positive. And after some solid, straightforward dishes sold at a healthy premium, in an admittedly gorgeous room staffed with pleasant and obliging people, I could just about see how it could have gathered some fans. That was, until the bill arrived... but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

After some excellent house bread with Echire butter, the first dish I'd agreed to pay for as opposed to had forced on me (more on that later) was a Veal Holstein. At £21.50 it was a generous portion of nicely cooked meat but the unidentifiable brown smear underneath was less a sauce and more like something that had failed to be removed by the previous dishwasher cycle. The staff did suggest I ordered a side to go with it - unseasoned, damp but fresh tasting spinach - but this was crying out for the volcano of rich veal stock and truffled mash that Bob Bob Ricard's version comes with. Bloody Bank Holidays.

Other main courses were, admittedly, better. A chargrilled slab of Pollock was a beautiful bit of fish, simply presented with a soft boiled egg and buttered new potatoes - comfort food at its most comforting. And omelette Arnold Bennett, when it finally appeared (a mix up with the orders but one charmingly apologised for and fixed) had a good cheesy flavour even if it was a bit runny. House fries needed more salt but were crunchy even to the bottom of the bowl.

Desserts continued in the same not-bad-but-not-quite-value vein. The dangerous sounding Scheiterhaufen was the best of them, a sort of boozy bread & butter pudding, soft and creamy. And an individual black forest gateaux was very pretty although it didn't quite get our pulses racing in the same way other versions elsewhere have. But my own "Mozart" was a very ordinary mixture of tart orange sorbet, chocolate meringue fingers and hot chocolate sauce - in fact it seems strange now, reciting those ingredients back, that it didn't taste a lot better than it did; you'd think you couldn't go far wrong with orange sorbet and chocolate sauce, but I'm afraid it was just a bit dull and not really worth the £5.25.

So that was it, and yes, I can easily moan about the high prices and somewhat unsatisfying food but it's a formula that has made the Wolseley as bafflingly popular as it is today so you can hardly blame them for sticking to it. But it was only when we were presented with the bill that another reason why I had avoided the Wolseley for so many years was brought to light - the dreaded Cover Charge.

The Delaunay - like the Wolseley - is not a cheap place to eat. We had deliberately asked for tap water, like we always do, and had naively assumed that the nice fresh bread and fancy butter was a complimentary way of getting our expensive lunch off to a nice start rather than an obligatory extra course. But no - the Delaunay would rather treat every customer as a potential freeloader, and charge each of us £2 for the privilege of walking through the door and using up their carpet, than trading in this miniscule premium for a payback of good will. Do other restaurants with no cover charge have tables of 12 snacking on free bread and olives then buggering off home? No, they do not. Cover charges are a mean-spirited, cynical and completely counterproductive way of clawing a couple of extra quid off unsuspecting punters and I hate them.

Ahem. I would, of course, in the interests of fairness, welcome a response from any person or particularly any restaurant that would like to defend the "mug's tax" of a cover charge. There was a bit of backwards and forwards on Twitter yesterday between a couple of people in the "well it's only a couple of quid" camp (though doesn't that argument work both ways? If they think we can cough up £2/head without making a fuss, surely they can take that miniscule hit on their profit margins), but largely it seems people are as infuriated by the practice as I am. One individual brilliantly compared them to the Ryanair-style credit card booking fees - not technically unavoidable perhaps if you read the small print or plan ahead, but in practice usually so.

Anyway, as ever with these things the only way of getting our message across is to vote with our feet. I would never advocate anything as deliberately disruptive (and potentially excruciatingly embarrassing) as asking for the cover charge to be taken off a bill - and in fact, that's exactly what most restaurants that charge one are banking on - but we can at the very least avoid such places altogether. Fortunately there aren't many, and even more fortunately, one of them is the Delaunay, and you really aren't missing anything much by avoiding there.


The Delaunay on Urbanspoon


Unknown said...

Interesting point, as ever well-made. Personally I don't get at all upset about cover charges per se, as long as they actually do 'cover' something, which in this case it does. I ate somewhere recently that didn't give free water but charged a quid for 'unlimited filtered water' - all well and good but I'm perfectly happy with tap, thanks. By contrast, at Trinity a £1.50 cover charge gets you water, olives, artisan bread and a freshly-made dip - something alone I'd happily pay for separately. I do agree with you though that at somewhere playing at The Delaunay's level they should either give you bread, butter etc as a freebie and absorb the cost elsewhere, or charge for it as a menu item; imposing the cover charge whether or not you actually want bread & butter does indeed just look greedy and grabby.

Susan said...

I am solidly in the "hates cover charges" camp. I also think it works out badly for staff: even at restaurants that give all of the service charge to the waitstaff, diners are less likely to tip generously where they've already been dinged for the pleasure of soiling the tablecloths. (And the staff don't get a cut of the cover charge.) Crikey that's a lot of money for an unremarkable lunch for three.

Ruduss said...

Surely they have already absorbed the cost of you breathing the same air as them? Cover charges are just an extra way to extract more money from the customer.

meemalee said...

Your pudding looks like a five year old's drawing of a campfire.

I hate cover charges too. It's like the supplement on a menu.

Lord knows I will happily spank away money on food, but extra itemised bits and bobs just drive me insane - like the handling charges when you buy gig tickets.

I'm sure it's just psychological - in the way £39.99 seems much cheaper than £40 - but it's enough to make me not want to go there.

Katie said...

I agree, but what's worse is when the charge buys you nothing but the privilege of eating there, which has certainly happened to me abroad.

Also, I'd be very disappointed if someone served me a 'Mozart' sundae that didn't include the famed Austrian chocolate liqueur (not sure what orange sorbet has to do with the great man).

Gavin said...

As one of the three lunch participants I have to agree with Susan. That was an expensive lunch for what was pleasant enough brasserie fare. Was bloody hungry though and at least they were open (and busy). Can't say I'll be rushing back, it's the sort of place you'd recommend to out-of-town visitors as a safe option. I'm sure it'll be very successful. The two quid cover charge is just an annoyance, absorb it in the other (considerable) prices.

Katy Salter @ Pinch of Salt said...

Getting 2012 off to a cracking start Chris! Cover charges are mean-spirited and only ever rear their heads in high-end restaurants. A much better idea would be a clear 'optional cover charge' on the menu, where you are given the option of say a £2 for unlimited 'filtered' water (oh what luxury, they used the filter tap), bread, olives etc. Then those of us happy with Thames tap and no bread can crack on with the starters, mains and puds...

Nicky said...

21.5% VAT?

Andrea said...

I too hate cover charges. You see that just about everywhere in Italy. I'm surprised it happens in the UK. Then with the service charge automatically added... that's really going too far imo.

Gregory said...

If they want a cover charge to cover bread and water (including sparkling) I really don't have an issue with this in lieu of a service charge. HW I agree with you.

Service charge is the problem. The cost of service is fundamental to the meal so it's cost should be included. I can hardly get up and get the meal from the kitchen myself !

I enjoyed my breakfast there the other day but felt that the other meals were overvalued.

Mr Noodles said...

Cover charges do get on my tits, but those posh places that don't charge it probably slap on an extra quid per course to compensate it. Far more pernicious imho is seeing 15% service on a bill. That said neither the presence of a cover charge nor 15% service is a major factor in deciding whether I'd go and eat at a restaurant.

PS: To those of you querying the VAT, it is in fact correct, as VAT of £21.50 equals 20% of the net £107.50 that results in a total of £129.00.

Anonymous said...

I would also point out that you're paying 12.5% service charge on the cover charge. Not only that but the service charge is going on after the VAT so you're effectively paying the restaurant for the "service" of coughing up to HMRC.

Cover charges? Service charges? Factor them into your menu prices you feckless tossers.

Alex C said...

I fell into the new year bank holiday trap of few decent restaurants open a couple of years back when I'd promised to take my Dad and his missus out for her birthday treat on that date. I discovered that the only place open in London boasting two michelin stars (yes, yes I know - not strictly necessary) was Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley - excellent food but certainly not cheap. We didn't feel ripped off though.

One of the things I love about Zucca is their refusal to deal with tips. I make it up to them by ordering better wine instead :-).
Cover charges are only acceptable in places where you get crowds of drunken people at a time or students, there's no excuse for them where mains are £20ish.

Tips that include vat are pretty uncalled for too - anywhere that you leave feeling gouged is making a mistake. I can leave places like Zucca, Marcas Wareing, Chabrot and Mien Tay, having spent what in each case is relatively a lot of money, but feeling I've had value and itching to go back, but these get maybe one chance before they are ditched.

Cherie City said...

Tell me if I'm wrong, but isn't a cover charge supposed to be just a few euros/pounds per table and not per person? No one ever eats £2 worth of bread and butter or tap water!

I had breakfast at The Delaunay and didn't have a cover charge added to my bill, but it was just as well really, as they burnt my toast!

Most London restaurants don't really do cover charges, so it comes across and mean and a bit crass. But if they must charge it, reduce it to a flat rate for the table.

Hollow Legs said...

it all looks very boring. Cover charges are ok if it is worth it; bread, butter, water, nibbles, dips, I want the whole fucking lot if you're charging me £2 a head for the pleasure.