Canteen, Royal Festival Hall


If ‘Love is What You Want’ then clearly I wanted to go and see Tracey Emin’s retrospective for someone’s birthday, because nothing says Many Happy Returns like used tampons, concrete embroidery and shite pencil drawings. I admire Tracey Emin, I find her emotionally exhausting and a couple of things did sing for me, but the bottom line is I don’t actually like her art. I’m allowed not to, and I don’t think I’m supposed to anyway – probably my fault for being the sort of person who should fuck people like Tracey, according to one of her neon signs. Still, I’m glad I went, albeit a bit truculently. (Apparently – I was definitely out toddlered by two little girls who ended up sat on the floor of the giftshop with Tracey sketch books and whom I’m not going to write about in case I get all Daily Mail at their mum for taking them in the first place.)

‘Love is What You Want’ is on at the Hayward and I’d recommend it because you need to have your own opinion, but another advantage (apart from the brilliant straw fox overlooking Waterloo Bridge) to the location is the chance to wander around the Southbank on a glorious day and see all the other people congratulating themselves on their proximity to ART. And restaurants and cafes (and gift shops) to help them consider how deeply affected they were by it all. I’m going to stick my neck out here, but with all apologies to my top secret Italian local (of which more, perhaps, someday,) I think I may have found the best coffee in London. Caffe Vergnano 1882 has got lots of interesting blurb in its menu about where it comes from and how good it is, so all I will add is that the coffee is superb. I go for meetings in the RFH all the time (not with anyone important, obviously) and will now be moving them about fifty yards to the right just for the puerile thrill of seeing 1882 written in chocolate powder on top of my cappuccino.

The menu looked none too shabby either, but that will have to wait for another day as I had already booked a table at Canteen. I’ve eaten there a number of times and always enjoyed it – the name gives a good indication of the surroundings and the menu. Deceptively simple, but hearty should you wish, a little lighter if you’re a lady who lunches. Clearly booking is for those who should really be fucking Tracey – looking on the list at the front desk, I saw I was the only one who had bothered (to book, not to fuck Tracey.) The place was busy – a good sign, and not initially a problem as we were ushered to a solitary booth by the door, with a mirrored wall behind.

(I mention the mirror mainly so I could point out to anyone from Canteen who might be reading, that having one of the waitresses checking her make up in it six inches behind one of your guests heads might be considered a little obtrusive, not to say rude.)

The whole point of Canteen is to work as an efficient, clean-lined café, a sort of upmarket IKEA without meatballs, not quite fine dining, but very good dining. You could almost sum it up in one word – proper. Except they haven’t – they’ve summed it up in the word Canteen, and they seem to have taken this so much to heart that the service was so slow and generally lackadaisical that I was tempted to get up and do it myself. If a glass of Pinot that took ages to arrive is sent back because it’s warm, the fact that the same one comes back a bit quicker with the recommendation that it’s ‘the coldest one we’ve got,’ is not necessarily to be celebrated.

The food was, to be fair, pretty good, but I knew that. That’s why we were there. Admittedly one of us was freaked out by half a pint of prawns  but I can’t really blame Canteen for that, (‘the eggs and the legs and the eyes!’) or that I therefore  had to swap them for my nicely spiky devilled kidneys on toast. Mushroom and celeriac pie came with mash and those greens that seem to announce how much good they’re doing you whilst boasting about how tasty they are, and at £10 with the prawns the lunch special  is great value. The same perhaps cannot be said of my soft-boiled egg, green bean, anchovy and (two slivers of) artichoke salad which is much the same price, but it still tasted delicious to a lady who lunches like me.

Sitting as near the front desk as we did, I did hear a couple of those other ladies moan about the speed of service, and I have to agree with them. Canteen is a great restaurant and a great concept, but at lunchtime on a summers day on the Southbank, it should not be too much to expect a few more staff. Unless they fancy adding the words ‘Self Service’ to the name, which would be a shame because they’d have to get the branding done all over again. Maybe Tracey could do them a nice neon sign.

July 2011

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