I’m supposed to be on a three-month sabbatical from my day job—I work as a restaurant critic for the London Evening Standard—but I’ve found it impossible not to cast a professional eye over the restaurants here in Los Angeles. I’ve eaten out almost every day since I arrived, and my conclusion, for what it’s worth, is that the worst restaurants in London are far worse, the ones in the middle aren’t nearly as good, but the best—the very best—are better.
For instance, compare the Ivy in West Hollywood with the Ivy in the West End. They both cater to a see-and-be-seen crowd, they’re both fairly expensive, and they’re both quite difficult to get in to. But in terms of the quality of the food, the efficiency of the service, and the overall atmosphere, the Ivy in London is in a different league. There’s something completely phony about the one here; it’s a simulacrum designed to trick tourists into thinking they’re having a proper “Hollywood” experience, the culinary equivalent of the Universal Studios tour.
Admittedly, I’ve only been to the Ivy once since I’ve been here, and my experience may have been colored by the fact that I was seated at the worst table in the house. There are three rooms at the Ivy, and which one you’re put in is dictated by whether you’re A-list, B-list, or C-list. I was right at the back of the C-list room, and my table was next to the kitchen. The waiters literally sent me careering into my soup every time they opened the swing doors. Had I been given this table on a date, my only hope would have been to plunge my fork into my eye and pray for some mercy sex.
Caring about stuff like this is one of the occupational hazards of being a restaurant critic. Before I started doing this job 18 months ago, I wouldn’t have known a good table from a hole in the wall. Indeed, “a hole in the wall” is a good description of the sort of places I used to eat at. But in the past year and a half, I’ve become a regular customer at the best restaurants in London, and, inevitably, I’ve grown accustomed to being fawned over by the staff. Whenever I visit these places, I’m supposed to be incognito, but a good manager can spot a critic a mile off. They react like Basil Fawlty being confronted by a food inspector. From the moment I sit down, nothing is too good for me.
The first few times this happened, I was acutely embarrassed. The other diners would look at me and think, “Who is this guy?” I wanted to go up to them and say, “I’m nobody. Just a restaurant critic.”
After a while, though, I began to find it funny. “Oh, no,” I’d say, rolling my eyes as plateloads of amuse bouche would materialize in front of me. “Here we go again.”
Now, I’m ashamed to say, I actually expect to be made a fuss of. I don’t go as far as Michael Winner, the restaurant critic for the Sunday Times, who will react to the slightest provocation by bellowing, “Don’t you know who I am?” at the top of his lungs. But I’m pretty bad. I tell myself that it’s perfectly alright to accept VIP treatment provided I don’t allow it to affect my review, but I’m not entirely confident that I’m able to rise above it when the maitre ‘d doesn’t recognize me. It’s like traveling first class on an airplane; once you’ve turned left, it’s very difficult to go back to turning right.
So, anyway, I didn’t like the Ivy, and I’ve been equally unimpressed by the Palm, Morton’s, Dantana’s, and the Ivy at the Shore. (Not all visited on this trip.) I can’t be sure my judgment hasn’t been affected by being seated in Outer Siberia in every single instance, but my gut feeling is that the chefs just don’t have access to the quality of ingredients that their equivalents do in London. I remember having a conversation about sourcing with the manager at Club Gascon, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Clerkenwell, and he told me that the sweetbreads on the lunchtime menu had been bought at the Rungis wholesale food market just outside Paris that morning. The reason the food is better at London’s top restaurants is that Britain is closer to France.
However, once you drop down a couple of notches, L.A. knocks London into a cocked hat. The restaurant I’ve been most impressed by so far is the Cheesecake Factory in Brentwood. I had a cobb salad there last week that was every bit as tasty as the cobb salad I had at the Ivy, yet it was brought to my table in half the time and it was a quarter of the price. In Britain—indeed, in France—there just aren’t any midmarket restaurant chains to match the quality of the Cheesecake Factory. And there are dozens of similar chains in this country that are equally first-rate. When it comes to this kind of food—good, solid, dependable fare at reasonable prices—America leads the world.
Similarly, in the “really appalling” category, L.A. can’t hold a candle to London. There’s a place round the corner from my house in Shepherd’s Bush called Omid’s Pizza that would shame the back streets of Cairo. If the U.N. weapons inspectors found a vat of the tomato sauce that Omid uses in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, President Bush wouldn’t have to answer any more impertinent questions about weapons of mass destruction. You could enter Omid’s Pizza in a nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare suit and still emerge covered in boils. If Omid tried to open a restaurant in L.A., forget about the public health inspectors. The surrounding area would be cordoned off with yellow crime-scene tape, and Schwarzenegger would send in a SWAT team.
In conclusion, then, the distance between the best and the worst in L.A. isn’t nearly as great as it is in London. In terms of your taste, if not your income levels, America is essentially a middle-class society. Britain, on the other hand, is still dominated by its traditional class system.