Marco Pierre White's attitude to restaurant critics has changed over the years. In the good old days, back when he was Britain's only chef with three Michelin stars, he was notoriously irascible. On one occasion, he even offered to lend some money to the editor of The Good Food Guide so he could get his teeth fixed. Today, he takes a more conciliatory approach. I met him for the first time last year and, within five minutes, he'd invited me to come shooting on his estate in Berkshire.
The reason for this volte face, of course, is that Marco is no longer just a talented chef. Rather, he's an entrepreneur, sitting at the top of an empire that comprises approximately 10 restaurants. I say "approximately" because it's difficult to say for certain. If you go to the official website of White Star Line, for instance, the group Marco jointly runs with Jimmy LaHoud, he boasts of owning eight of "the best restaurants in London". But only six are listed. What happened to the other two? I called up the company in the hope of enlightenment, but the woman who answered the phone couldn't help. "Hmm. Good question," she said. "I honestly can't remember. There've been so many that have come and gone over the years."
Marco's latest attempt at empire building is Frankie's, an upmarket pizza-and-pasta chain named after the jockey Frankie Dettori. Chez Max, which was originally part of the White Star Line group, was the first of Marco's restaurants to be given the Frankie's treatment--this was at the beginning of last year--and since then two more have opened in Chiswick and Putney. Now, Marco has decided to make the Criterion, the famously difficult-to-fill restaurant on Piccadilly, the flagship of the chain.
The Criterion was designed in the 1870s by Thomas Verity, one of the leading theatre architects of his day, and its interior is a wonderful example of the late Victorian style. However, its high ceilings give it a cathedral-like quality that makes it seem empty even when it's three-quarters full. Prosperous Victorian merchants may have appreciated these cavernous spaces, being able to make believe that they were dining in royal palaces, but today such large rooms only work when they're packed to the rafters. At the Criterion, that's almost never the case.
Marco took over this space in 1995, but he's never really been able to make it work and I doubt that changing the menu--the listed interior has been left more or less untouched--is going to make much difference. Instead of French brasserie food, it's now offering a more family-friendly Italian menu, but it's difficult to imagine many parents making the pilgrimage with their kids in tow. As with the three other branches of Frankie's, the food is a little too highly priced to appeal to this demographic. For my main course, I had a perfectly decent scaloppina of salmon, while my companion had an equally acceptable dish of liver and onions, but our bill of £67.95 was a bit steep considering we split some tomato bread to start with and only had a glass of wine each. Marco doesn't seem to have grasped that his main competitor in this market is Pizza Express.
The Criterion has been part of the White Star Line group since 1995, which is a lifetime by Marco's standards. One of my colleagues summed up the difference between Sir Terence Conran and Marco Pierre White by saying the former is a "shopkeeper" while the latter is a "restaurateur", but another difference is this: Sir Terence tends to hold on to the places he owns, while Marco doesn't. Among those restaurants that have slipped through his fingers are Harvey's, the Canteen, the Café Pelican, the Café Royal, the Oak Room at Le Meridien, the Restaurant Marco Pierre White and, of course, the Titanic. A more accurate way of summing up the two would be this: Sir Terence is the general at the head of a conquering army, while Marco is still only the leader of an expeditionary force.