If I were to begin anywhere, it had to be Brasserie Zédel. If I could do Zédel, I could face the world. It has the largest dining room I know, just off Piccadilly Circus in London, and I’d booked for 1pm on what the media was waggishly calling “Super Saturday”. If anyone could sprinkle an air of jocundity over all this havoc, and keep everyone safe in the meantime, it would be restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King.
I’ve been a repeat customer here for the past seven years, more recently favouring a quick, pit-stop meal of their pithivier d’épinards au beurre de cerfeuil – let’s not stand on ceremony here: it’s basically just a puff pasty pie stuffed with creamed leaves. I start with celeriac rémoulade and a glass, or perhaps two, of Crémant de Loire.
The truth is, however, I never went to Zédel purely for the food. This cavernous basement is part restaurant, part cocktail lounge, part cabaret club. It is faux-French, stopping just short of ’Allo ’Allo territory, seats about 200 and turns all its tables roughly three times every night. If you sit here long enough, Melvyn Bragg will probably walk in, looking curiously ageless and fresh from dissecting the Picts on In Our Time.
Normally, Zédel thrived by serving decent-quality, Cafe Rouge-style French classics at Cafe Rouge prices to pre-theatre crowds, tourists, and retail and media workers. You may have noted several clanging chimes of doom during that previous sentence, because, currently, there are no thrice-weekly coach trips from Huddersfield to see Jersey Boys. There are very few tourists at all, while many of Soho’s post-production studios, PR head offices and ad agencies are not just working from home, but pondering whether to come back and face steep rents again at all. I mean, why bother? Isn’t everyone happy on Zoom? And as for Cafe Rouge, last week, its parent company folded.
Similar scenes are playing out in every city centre across Britain, with footfall down everywhere. However, I worry especially for Soho, which is, to my mind, merely a handful of theatre and restaurant closures away from becoming first a wasteland, then rebooting as several rows of shadowy, money-rinsing kiosks called things like The Rainbow Egg Bubble Waffle Shop. Here, customers could descend their sterilised coach steps, wearing visors, swooshing themselves with disinfectant, then posing to create Instagram content while eating a waffle next to somewhere Sid Vicious once vomited, before scarpering off towards Bicester Designer Outlet Village.
With this in mind, I aim to use Soho, rather than lose it. Things cannot be the same, so one has merely to embrace the different. Zédel, for example, was working with a third fewer tables than usual, and with hand sanitiser gel packets now part of the place settings. A heat-seeking, infrared thermometer at the maître d’s desk revealed I was 36.2C and chimed merrily to say I was cool enough to have lunch there. Earlier, in the cocktail bar at Folie, where we went for apéritifs, the wine list was available only via QR code.
Still, after 104 days of staring into my fridge and trying to find interesting new ways with reheated Puy lentils, the act of unfurling a napkin and being offered a bread basket felt magical. Our server began by checking whether we were fine to have our wine served, deftly trying to gauge the boundaries of our fears without himself appearing too casual or too paranoid. These new tricks cannot be remotely easy for staff. Every customer they meet will have an ever-so-slightly different attitude to risk. Few of us wish to eat anywhere that looks, feels or smells like a clinic, but, just as football fans are finding they don’t quite love the game as much without the noise from the terraces, diners will need to learn to love restaurants that are kept purposefully music-free in order to keep chat quiet. Say it, don’t spray it. Or perhaps: the Vengabus is not coming, we do not like to party.
In Brasserie Zédel’s case, no music means, for the time being at least, no live jazz in The Crazy Coqs bar. This made for a more sedate visit all round, with no need to stay vigilant during my îles flottantes lest my Observer counterpart Jay Rayner suddenly appeared and began plinky-plonking his way through Fly Me To The Moon on the piano. Every crisis is an opportunity.