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Toby Young
Friday 11th April 2003

Christopher's American Grill

ES Magazine - 11th April 2003

I've always felt there was something slightly schizophrenic about Christopher's. It thinks of itself as a typical "American" restaurant, serving up classic, "surf 'n' turf" food in an informal setting, but scratch the surface and you'll find a quintessentially English establishment.

In part this is due to its location. Housed in an imposing, Victorian building on the edge of Covent Garden, it has an imperial grandeur that bellies its efforts to appear friendly and democratic. The first thing you notice on your way in is a magnificent spiral staircase that looks as though it's been imported, brick by brick, from a maharajah's palace. It came as no surprise when the General Manager informed me that the building used to house the Victoria Sporting Club, one of London's finest, 19th Century brothels.

Then there's the décor. Far from being American, the interior looks like a modern, English country house. It's understated and comfortable, with wooden floors and large fireplaces, and there are a few Oriental touches thrown in just to prove that the owners aren't complete philistines.

Finally, there's Christopher himself, the slightly louche, upper class front man who always seems to be in the restaurant. Actually, "front man" may be a little unfair since he probably owns part of it, but to all intents and purposes he's the maitre 'd. With his prodigious belly and bespectacled face, he looks like a grown-up version of Billy Bunter--the Owl of the Remove. He's the eldest son of Ian Gilmour, the last of the Tory wets, but whatever hopes his father once had of Christopher following him into politics must have long been abandoned. This always-cheerful restaurateur has found his vocation in life as a Falstaffian meeter-and-greeter.

With a few exceptions, the clientele at Christopher's are cut from the same cloth. I had lunch there with my sister last week and the first thing she noticed was how few of our fellow diners were women. Of the 100 or so customers, no more than 15 were female. In addition, all the men were wearing suits, being a mixture of investment bankers, accountants and journalists. It was more like having lunch at the Garrick than a North American grill, albeit with an average age of 45 rather than 90.

Having said that, the food is about a thousand times better than the Garrick. I've been going to Christopher's about once a year since it opened in 1991 and I've never had a bad experience. As someone who's spent about a third of his adult life living in America, I can testify that its claims to serve up typical American food are completely bogus--and thank God for that. Its nearest New York equivalent is the Tribecca Grill, but the vegetables are fresher, the meat more tender and the wine list infinitely more sophisticated. It's no more typically American than Tea & Sympathy in the West Village is typically English. Pie and mash anyone?

I started with a delicious smoked tomato soup and followed up with blackened salmon and jambalaya, while my sister had a lobster "martini" followed by liver and bacon. The piece de resistance, though, was the pudding: a banana tart tartine with rum and raison ice cream. We had to wait about 20 minutes for it, but it was the sort of sticky treat that Billy Bunter would have risked a good thrashing for. Next time I'm in the West End to see a play, I'm going to nip into Christopher's afterwards, sit down at the bar, and order myself another one of these. I don't plan to share it, either.

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