Restaurant critics are generally thought of as a bunch of mean-spirited cynics, but in fact most of them are frustrated idealists. As they go about their business, they have a picture of a perfect restaurant in the back of their minds and, as often as not, the reason they're so disappointed by the place they happen to be reviewing is because it doesn't live up to this ideal. It's usually a simple little bistro that an uncle or a godparent took them to in Paris when they were a teenager, a restaurant that has grown in stature with each passing year until it has come to occupy a sacred place in their imaginations. As far as awarding points for merit is concerned, nostalgia is a far more powerful agent than a Michelin food inspector.
This, I think, is why my colleagues have gone so completely bananas about Galvin, an apparently unremarkable new restaurant near Madame Toussaud's. To look at, the Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, as it's called, is nothing special. It's located at the wrong end of Baker Street in the no-man's land between the Marylebone Road and Oxford Street and, apart from a large G hanging above the door, it would be easy to pass by without noticing. Once through the door, you're faced with a long, L-shaped room with the statutory open kitchen at one end--and with its grey slate floor and mahogany wood-paneling it could be any number of upmarket London restaurants. Indeed, nothing about its appearance provides a clue as to why Galvin has received more rave reviews than any other restaurant to open in the past 10 years.
The first hint is offered by the menu. It's full of classic bistro dishes, such as steak tartare and roast rump of lamb, that are very reasonably priced. There's even a prix fixe lunch menu that offers three courses for £15.50. The second hint comes when the food actually arrives at the table. On my visit, I had a Dorset crab salad to start with and a braised pig's trotter for my main course--and both were very good. My starter was less than £10 and my main course was less than £20 and for food of this quality to be served at these prices is rather remarkable. Clearly, beneath it's unprepossessing exterior, Galvin is something special.
In order to fully appreciate what's going on here, it helps to know a little bit about Chris and Jeff Galvin, the brothers whose name is above the door. Chris, the older of the two, began his apprenticeship as Anthony Worrall Thompson's dish-washer aged 15 at a restaurant called the Old Log in Brentwood. Since then, both brothers have worked in a series of Michelin-starred restaurants--Chris at the Orrery, Jeff at L'Escargot--and trained with the likes of Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White and Giorgio Locatelli. Their decision to open Galvin in 2005 was prompted by a trend across the Channel whereby chefs at haute cuisine establishments have left to open "bistrots modernes"--small restaurants serving simple, bourgeois food at reasonable prices.
There's something very democratic about this movement--it's prompted, in part, by a desire to make good food more accessible--and this is reflected in the clientele at Galvin. Almost from the day it opened, it has proved so popular that the brothers have had to employ two girls just to answer the phones. The managers enforce a strictly first-come, first-serve rule, with no tables being held back for VIPs, so the customers tend to be very down-to-earth and unpretentious. On the night I went, it was full of couples celebrating anniversaries and groups of middle-aged friends, all dressed to the nines in outfits that wouldn't have looked out of place 25 years ago. Not an ideal date restaurant by any means, but a pleasant place to spend the evening nevertheless.
Galvin Bistrot de Luxe is such a hit that the brothers are now in empire-building mode and have recently opened a new restaurant in Windows, the aerie at the top of the Park Lane Hilton. Clearly, these two boys are on their way up.