To commemorate the bi-centenary of Lord Nelson’s famous naval victory I decided to undertake my own personal survey of Trafalgar but at much less personal risk. My plan, also inspired by Dame Ellen Macarthur’s epic journey, was to circumnavigate Trafalgar Square in search of a good meal.
I knew from countless trips into what must be one of the most heavily visited parts of London that this was going to be a challenge, that by the end of my tour of duty I might be feeling like Lot, willing to spare the entire area if I could have found a decent cup of coffee.
But I am delighted to report that although there isn’t an exceptional cup of coffee to be had in the square, there is finally something happening on the south side between Whitehall and Cockspur Street which will please tourists, the many thousands who work in and around the square and even Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Approaching Trafalgar Square from the north, east or west there is quite simply nothing on offer and this owes a great deal to the imposing architecture on these three sides.
The National Gallery occupies the entire north side but there is little inside here to satisfy the appetite. Its new ‘waiter assisted’ café is not impressive and the restaurant in the Sainsbury Wing remains sorely in need of investment and innovation. The east and west sides are the domains of South Africa and Canada House, both built in a distinctly architecturally oppressive style.
What the new pedestrianisation of the north side of the square could have led to, however, is the secure space for a large, outdoor café which even operating from spring to early autumn would surely and quickly have repaid the necessary investment in fixtures, fittings and umbrellas. But, extraordinarily, although London is increasingly referred to as a ‘café society’, there is nothing here. Given that so much of the pleasure of being a visitor in Paris, Rome, Venice or Madrid, is sitting outside, watching the sights as the world goes by it is surprising, and equally disappointing, that here there is nothing similar. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the pigeons are attracted to Trafalgar Square because there is more public provision for them to rest, drink and eat than there is for mankind.
Although there is a little more on the east – a hot dog stand and a Costa Coffee in Waterstone’s – and on the west a lacklustre branch of Thai Square restaurants opposite the Texas Embassy Cantina (useful for a margarita if you are meeting friends but otherwise forgettable Tex/Mex food) - two recent openings on the south side are genuinely encouraging and should repay their astute backers.
The second, which opened on March 1st is the one hundred and twenty eighth branch of Pre<grave>t a Manger, in which its chairman and creative director Julian Metcalfe explained they had invested far more than normal to transform what was yet another empty bank because “I was absolutely amazed at quite how devoid Trafalgar Square was of a good café. I think we will be very, very busy.”
If he is proved correct then another beneficiary will be Niall Barnes, an obviously passionate Scot, who has recently had the courage to open Albannach (Gaelic for a Scotsman) three doors away in what was also once a bank although somewhat ironically had most recently been an Aberdeen Angus Steak House.
Barnes has set himself quite a challenge: not just to open a couple of bars with a restaurant attached that show off the best of Scotland’s produce, whether whisky, beef or the excellent tablet or fudge they serve with the coffee, but also to give the interior a definitely Scottish feel. Theming a restaurant is a tricky business because it can so easily become heavy handed but happily this is not the case, here. Antlers form the base of a rather splendid chandelier and the lampshades; tartan covers some of the extremely comfortable restaurant chairs; there is a magnificent light in the lower bar in the shape of a full size deer while photos of the Scottish countryside fill the restaurant’s walls. But the overall sensation is certainly not oppressive.
Bars on two levels reveal not just where Barnes believes financial salvation lies but also reflects the Scottish approach to eating out. When I phoned to reserve a table I was asked by the receptionist with a soft Scottish burr “Will you be coming in first for a drink?” a question I had never encountered south of the border.
Whether you choose to drink before or after, it is well worth persisting up to the mezzanine restaurant which houses fifteen tables and a private dining room. Nor should the sight of the otherwise friendly waiting staff wired up with radios round their waist and ear pieces put you off either – the explanation is that, as ever, the kitchen is in the basement.
Scottish chef John Paul McLachlan has not only devised a menu that incorporates cullen skink, hand caught scallops, Buccleugh beef and Skye monkfish but also one that in true Scottish fashion includes as many desserts as first and main courses. Our dinner including an excellent De Trafford Chenin Blanc, Arbroath smokies, venison, guinea fowl and crancahan with winter berries came to £105 for two including service and left the definite impression of a kitchen punching well above its weight.
Albannach, 66 Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DS
tel: 020 7930 0066
Open 7 days. www.albannach.co.uk