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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 1st September 2006

Lounge Lover

It must have been hard for Madonna and Guy Ritchie to agree on a venue to celebrate her birthday last month. After all, their social aspirations are almost diametrically opposed to one another. He's the stepson of a baronet trying to pass as a cockney street urchin, while she's the daughter of an American motor mechanic who likes to dress up as a Sloane Ranger and shoot pheasants. At what point does their taste overlap?

The answer, it turns out, is Lounge Lover, an ultra-trendy bar in a converted meatpacking factory in Shoreditch. Not only is it situated in the heart of the East End, thereby satisfying Guy's craving for street cred, it is owned by three French antique dealers, making it posh enough for his wife as well. Consequently, at around 12.45am on August 17th, after playing the final concert of the UK leg of her current world tour, Madonna turned up at Lounge Lover on the arm of her husband to celebrate her 48th birthday.

From the outside, it seems an unlikely spot for such a glamorous party. Even though it's technically in Shoreditch, it feels suspiciously like Bethnal Green. I daresay most of Madonna's guests arrived by limo, but ordinary mortals have to get the tube to Liverpool Street, walk about half-a-mile down Bishopsgate and then duck into a little alleyway called Whitby Street. Lounge Lover is next door to Les Trois Garcons, the outrageously camp destination restaurant owned by the same three French antique dealers. Two life size lions on either side of the doorway indicate that you've arrived.

According to Ronja Gustavsson, the drop-dead gorgeous assistant manager, Lounge Lover is divided into four areas: the red area, the baroque area, the front area and the VIP area, all with their own distinctive design motif. Naturally, I want to be seated in the VIP section--literally a cage opposite the bar--but since it's only 6.15pm and the whole place is empty it seems a bit pointless. Ronja explains that it doesn't start filling up until around 10pm and it only gets really busy on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. She seats my companion and me at what she claims is the best table in the house--a round piece of glass on a stainless steel base in the baroque area--and goes off in search of some menus.

When Lounge Lover first opened in 2003 it was a bar/restaurant, but a year later the three antique dealers decided it made poor business sense to compete with their own restaurant next door and turned it into a drinking den. The upshot is that the 20-page menu contains only 11 bar snacks, with the remaining 19 pages given over to exotic cocktails. It even sells bottles of Cristal champagne at £250 a pop, just in case a group of hedge fund managers decide to drop in.

I decide to try the salmon roe served on blinis with crème fraiche and the assiette du charcuterie and I'm happy to report that both are very good. Admittedly, the salmon roe is a little insubstantial, given that it costs £18, but the plate of cold meats, which includes some excellent chorizo, is good value at £7. My companion and I are going on to the theatre afterwards so we limit ourselves to two glasses of red wine each, but since Lounge Lover does an extremely good Californian Zinfandel by the glass that isn't such a privation. All in all, a pretty satisfactory "snack", even if it does set us back £59.56. This is an East End bar that isn't ashamed to charge West End prices.

I'm not sure I'll return to Lounge Lover to celebrate my 48th birthday--a depressingly imminent prospect--but if my wife ever leaves me I might come back here. "I would definitely fall for a man who took me here," says Ronja Gustavsson. "It's the perfect place for a first date."

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