When the managing director of one of London's successful restaurant groups recently confided in me that he was close to securing an exciting new site, my mind immediately turned to the most obvious locations, Soho or Covent Garden or perhaps the ultra-fashionable Smithfield or Hoxton. I was wrong on all counts - this new restaurant will be in Holborn.
Squeezed between Covent Garden and the Inns of Court along the axis of Kingsway, High Holborn and Chancery Lane, Holborn has always been extremely busy but this activitiy has until recently been confined to the daytime. A vast number of offices has meant an almost equal number of sandwich bars, pubs and cafés which have been joined over the past five years by branches of Prêt à Manger, Starbucks, Aroma, All Bar One and Jamies.
The absence of a significant number of evening customers has meant that Holborn's rents and rates have been too expensive for the more upmarket restaurants whose higher fixed costs require a busy lunch and dinner trade. Bank which opened at the bottom of Kingsway on the corner of the Strand was the exception which proved this rule because of its proximity to theatreland.
But all that is changing as recently three new restaurants have opened in Holborn and are playing to full houses at lunch and dinner, the result not so much of the intrinsic quality of the restaurants in my opinion as a transformation in the area. Holborn is busy in the evenings because it is becoming a centre for new hotels.
The Grange Holborn Hotel is a converted office block; the Kingsway Hall Hotel a former Methodist Church. The Chancery Court Hotel has opened in what was once HQ to the Pearl Assurance Company, and just opposite is the Citadines Apart'Hotel, a block of 192 serviced apartments.
These conversions have been most propitious for the new restaurants as Aldo Zilli, who opened his fifth branch of Zilli Fish in a former bank three hundred metres from the Kingsway Hall Hotel a month ago, explained when he expressed his surprise and delight with the restaurant's current evening trade thanks primarily to the hotel customers from down the road.
Zilli, ebullient and full of Italian charm, has hit on a successful formula by combining the public's current love affair with fish with his native country's culinary style in a lively, relaxed setting. This new location may however show signs of a move too far as its size (as well as the ground floor restaurant there is a pizzeria downstairs) seems to be overstretching his staffing resources. Our meal comprised a couple of good starters of mussels and deep fried squid but more that were just mediocre, most notably crab tortellini with a lobster sauce, a dull seared tuna niçoise and an expensive, oversweet tiramisu. The menu is too long for the kitchen - it seems ridiculous and incongruous to see traditional beer battered haddock and chips alongside beefsteak Fiorentina - while the main course prices, from £15-25, stretch the value-for-money ratio to the limit.
Jake Hodges has chosen a more singular path at Cigala. Formerly sous chef at Moro in Exmouth Market, EC1, which so successfully continues to combine Spanish and North African dishes, Hodges now confines himself to the food, wonderful sherries and ever improving wines of Spain.
The corner dining room is spare with large plate-glass windows; the table settings are clean and simple and the service prompt and friendly. Hodges's daily changing menu follows the current, laudable fashion for being brief incorporating dishes such as sweetbreads with caper tart; Jamon Serrano and tomato toast; a mixed vegetable plate and roasted hake with escalivada, Catalan-style grilled vegetables. Although our meal was enjoyable it lacked the deeper, more concentrated flavours that I had come to associate with Hodges at Moro. It may be that because Cigala has opened to immediate full houses the kitchen is having to cook almost too quickly, not allowing the individual ingredients to develop into a more harmonious whole. Once the kitchen has bedded down these faults should disappear.
When I called in to make my second booking at High Holborn, the attentive receptionist recognised me and assumed that I was returning so promptly because my first meal had been so good. He could not have been further from the truth.
I was going back to David Cavalier's retro menu and dining room with shades of the 1950s because my first meal had incorporated a shellfish nage with undercooked shellfish and a sole Véronique that was both undercooked and cold. Whilst my guest's salad of pig's ear followed by a not quite classic steak tartare had been much better, his request to have a side order of pommes Pont Neuf, normally served with the grilled lobster, was greeted with as emphatic a Non from the maître d' as the late General de Gaulle could have mustered.
Sadly, my second meal was no better. Cavalier's menu is not only unashamedly rich and heavy without a single main-course option for the vegetarian (when I asked the maître d' about this lacuna he said the kitchen would prepare a layer of vegetables) but also written in a most irritating style with unnecessary and ungrammatical sets of inverted commas in virtually every description. Scallops with a ravioli of wild mushrooms were fine but a velouté of Jerusalem artichokes (interestingly six pounds at lunch but seven in the evening) was spoilt by the unnecessary addition of a breast of smoked wood pigeon. My main course, braised brill with fennel and 'cocotte' potatoes, was dry with the accompanying fennel and mushrooms cold by the time they reached me. I left most of it but subsequently this was brought to the maître d's attention and he took it off my bill.
Aside from hefty wine mark ups High Holborn's inherent weakness is that the basement kitchen has to service a large dining room via a small electric lift. Two poor, expensive meals out of two is enough to put me off this particular restaurant if not the obviously up-and-coming area.
The Grange Holborn Hotel, 50 Southampton Row, London WC1, 020-7242 1800
Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel, 252 High Holborn, London WC1, 020-7829 9888
Kingsway Hall, Great Queen Street, London WC2, 020-7309 0909
Citadines Apart'Hotel, 94-99 High Holborn, London WC1, 020-7395 8800
Cigala, 54 Lambs Conduit Street, London WC2, 020-7405 1717
£25 per person
Zilli Fish Too, 145 Drury Lane, London WC2, 020-7240 0011
£25-30 per person
High Holborn, 95-96 High Holborn, London WC1, 020-7404 3338
£35 per person