Richoux, 172 Piccadilly, London W1J 9EJ (020 3375 1000). Starters £6.95-£12.95, mains £8.95-£19.95, desserts £6.75-£7.95, wines from £24
The day after I had dinner at Richoux, I went on Google Street View in an attempt to answer a simple question: what was it specifically about the place that had made me stride past for so many years, my nose in the air, convinced it was unworthy of my attention? I found it in an image from August 2014. There was a sandwich board outside on the pavement of London’s Piccadilly offering “Any breakfast with a hot drink and juice for £9.95”. It was illustrated by a grimly anaemic, grossly unappetizing photo of eggs Benedict. Under its dollop of pale, industrial-looking Hollandaise, it presented as something you might wish to treat with a broad-spectrum antibiotic, rather than eat. It all looked rather desperate and needy.
London is full of places we might choose to walk past on instinct: “Scottish” steak houses offering sides straight from the deep freeze, Chinese buffets where the Day-Glo orange food festers under heat lamps, branches of Pizza Hut where they’ll flog you walk with a crust stuffed with cysts of cheese burger. They always seem full. I’ve often wanted to run in and bawl at the punters to save themselves; to tell them they could do so much better. But that would be the act of a spittle-flecked, raging madman and anyway, if they couldn’t be bothered to do some basic research, what business was it of mine?
The fact is I’d always had Richoux in that category. I didn’t know what it was for. Perhaps that was grossly unfair. After all, I had never even stepped inside. Over the years the brand had expanded. There were other Richoux branches in Knightsbridge, St John’s Wood, Mayfair and even Port Solent, but the pandemic did for them. In January 2021, the parent company was put into administration and all of them closed.
The Richoux name, and the premises on Piccadilly, was bought by Naveen Handa, part of the family behind the Cairn Group of hotels and restaurants. What he’s done with it is glorious. He’s created an extremely good-value, stylish brasserie deserving of its prime location on one of the capital’s grandest streets. He has installed two chefs, Jamie Butler and Lewis Spencer, both from the much-garlanded Moor Hall in Lancashire. They, in turn, have put that cutting-edge kitchen experience to one side and instead written a pitch-perfect menu of beautifully executed crowd-pleasers. After trading for 113 years, Richoux has become an instant classic.
Although I never ate there, I glanced inside a few times over the years, and it always seemed rather dark and dour with lots of heavy wood and sombre colours. It’s not like that any more. The smart alcoves down each side of the room have been retained along with the brass light fittings, but the whole thing has been lightened: peach walls, pale blue banquettes, a new tiled floor in a scallop shell design. They’ve kept the dessert cabinet just inside the door, and filled it with Butler’s snowy meringue-encased gateaux and jam and cream-topped cruffins, a cross between a croissant and muffin.
The closest thing to innovation here is a plate of raw tuna and watermelon, cut into identically sized pink and purple cubes, then given a squeeze of lime, peppery olive oil and a little mint. Otherwise, it’s a menu of old friends; of dishes you could imagine happily eating on any day of the week and quite possibly at any time. Have the French onion soup for £6.95, topped by a garlic crouton laden with toasted gruyère, or a Caesar salad for the same price. There’s beef carpaccio, or creamy burrata with the pertest of tomatoes. A jumbo prawn cocktail is all the good things, assembled with care. There’s a little blitzed and seasoned avocado at the bottom, then crisp leaves of baby gem lettuce, topped with squeakily fresh prawns under just the right amount of Marie Rose sauce and finished with a dusting of smoked paprika.
And for a main? There’s a grilled fillet of sea bream with salsa verde, or a crisp-skinned, thick-cut fillet of salmon on a black rice salad, with a little pickled cucumber and artichoke, both at £15.95. Feeling flush? The ribeye is £19.95, but for a fiver less there’s also a flat iron. They tell me they’ve just run out of that, but can substitute with bavette, one of those steak cuts which trades tenderness for flavour. Bring all your own teeth. It is perfectly cooked and comes with a rocket and parmesan salad, a shiny metal beaker of good chips and an unimprovable béarnaise.
Or just stop here for a chicken club sandwich or a croque monsieur or smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. One of those, and a glass of wine, and you’ll barely break £15. I love the diversity and vivacity of the London restaurant scene, really I do. But sometimes reading those menus full of innovation and thrills and umami and tahini and charred hispi can be utterly exhausting. Sometimes I just want to be brought something nice to eat. The menu at Richoux is the promise of nice things to eat, executed in an elegant, dark blue sans serif font. Until now Brasserie Zedel just up the road at Piccadilly Circus had had this territory pretty much to itself. They’ve now got serious competition.
My companion for dinner was late. To be fair he is always late, which is odd because he’s a gifted jazz musician with extraordinary timing. Tonight, he was so late that we had to forgo dessert or we’d miss the gig we were attending. Hence, I came back a couple of days later and raided the dessert counter, because it is my job to do so. I took home the good stuff. The star is the individual apple tarte tatin, with crisp caramelised pastry and sweet, toffeed fruit. It’s £4.95 to take away or £7.95 to eat in where it comes with ice-cream or crème anglaise.
Or perhaps a wedge of that gateau with its layers of light sponge and mascarpone cream, finished with soft Swiss meringue, its surface blowtorched to a caramel brown. Do not miss the sugar-crusted, jam-filled wonder that is the cruffin. Oh just have it all. Regularly, I am asked to recommend somewhere “nice” to eat in central London, by which I assume they mean somewhere classy and civilized and unchallenging and not ruinously expensive. Richoux is my new best answer.
The venerable Castle Hotel in Taunton, which has been owned and run by the Chapman family for three generations, has appointed a new head chef, who happens to be an old one. Andrew Swann started at The Castle as a commis chef in 2000. He has since worked for Zafferano and L’Escargot in London, among others. ‘I fell in love with cooking when I first started my career here,’ he has said. ‘And to be able to come back so many years later to continue that journey is really special for me.’ The kitchens of the Castle have recently undergone a £150,000 renovation. see the-castle-hotel.com.
Sandwich master Max Halley has teamed up with restaurant group Burger & Lobster to create two limited edition lobster rolls which will be available until 6 June. The lobster cocktail roll costs £26 and features lobster, Marie Rose sauce and all the accessories. The fish and chip lobster roll, for the same price, brings in tartar sauce, a pea and mint purée and crushed salt and vinegar crisps. At burgerandlobster.com.
The arrival this month of mandatory calorie counts on menus for restaurant operators with 250 staff or more was awaited with trepidation. Many restaurateurs complained that it would introduce great costs both for the calculations and menu reprinting. The solution to the latter lies in the approach by the nationwide Ivy Collection group. They’ve retained the non-calorie count menus, but are supplying a card with a QR code for both nutritional and allergen information.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1