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Toby Young
Friday 17th September 2004

Bistrotheque

ES Magazine - 17th September 2004

by Toby Young

Pablo Flak, one of the designers behind the fashion label House of Jazz, couldn't have been more surprised last September when, at the conclusion of his show, Claudia Schiffer appeared backstage and asked to be photographed wearing one of his outfits for American Vogue.

House of Jazz shut up shop earlier this year and, whatever else you can say about Flak's new venture--a restaurant called Bistrotheque--one thing's for certain: it's unlikely to be visited by Claudia Schiffer. Located in what may well be the most depressing street in East London, you have to pick your way through a minefield of doggy poo to get there. It's unmarked--Flak and his partner, David Waddington, couldn't afford a neon sign, apparently--so you may have to walk up and down several times to find it. When I did stumble across it, quite by accident, I called the people who were due to join me and told them their best bet was to follow the smell of urine. As you enter the relevant building, which is hidden behind a half-closed, corrugated iron security shutter in what looks like an abandoned comprehensive school, the stench is overpowering. Call me old-fashioned, but I didn't take that as a particularly good sign.

Pablo Flack and David Waddington used to run a pub in Hoxton called The Bricklayers Arms and they claim to have relocated to this former sweatshop in Bethnal Green because their old neighbourhood has been overrun by yuppies. They've even compared Bistrotheque to Pastis, Keith McNally's place in New York's meatpacking district. They see themselves as pioneers--early adopters--who are braving the wilds of an uncharted frontier in the interests of urban regeneration.

The real reason, I suspect, is because they couldn't afford to open a restaurant anywhere else. Rents in Hackney are a lot lower than they are in Shoreditch--and the cost of this place must be next to nothing, it's so horrible. The overwhelming sense you get as you climb the concrete stairs to Bistrotheque is of everything being done on an absolute shoe string. It's almost as if a group of punk rockers had decided to bring a few more chairs into the sitting room of their East London squat and then call it a "restaurant".

Actually, the dining room of Bistrotheque isn't quite that bad, though David Waddington admitted to me that he'd decorated it himself. he's painted the exposed brickwork white and hung a few ship's lanterns around the place, giving it the feel of a tarted-up bicycle shed, but the budget evidently didn't stretch to a ceiling. If you gaze upwards you see what looks like the underside of a suspension bridge.

Given Pablo Flak's background, you'd expect Bistrotheque to be occupied by a bunch of flamboyantly-dressed fashionistas, but the crowd I encountered was rather boring and middle-aged. (I expected to feel out of place, but I blended in seamlessly.) Who were these brave souls who'd schlepped to this godforsaken wilderness? It took me 55 minutes to get there from Shepherd's Bush, which made it a 110-minute round trip. It would have been quicker to drive to Oxford and back.

Perhaps the explanation lay in the cuisine. Wouldn't it be wonderful, I thought, if this hole-in-the-wall in the middle of nowhere just happened to serve the best food in London! I greedily ordered the foie gras starter, followed by a sole meuniere on a bed of spinach, while my companions opted for lamb, mixed vegetables and vegetarian tart. Alas, it wasn't up to much. It wasn't bad; it wasn't good. It was just mediocre. Our verdict was unanimous: "nothing special".

It's possible that I chose a bad night to go there. There was a notice on the wall downstairs advertising a "transvestite lip synchronicity" evening. This may well be a hoot, the kind of ultra-trendy, sexually ambiguous entertainment that's only available in East London. But I couldn't help wondering how those poor female impersonators, tottering about uncertainly on their stiletto heels, would manage to avoid treading in all the dog shit.

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