Arlington, London SW1: ‘It’s for spoilt, grown-up babies’ – restaurant review

<span>Arlington, London W1: ‘The customers table-hop, air-kiss and eat bang bang chicken.’</span><span>Photograph: Emma Guscott/The Guardian</span>
Arlington, London W1: ‘The customers table-hop, air-kiss and eat bang bang chicken.’Photograph: Emma Guscott/The Guardian

Le Caprice will to my mind always be Princess Di’s lunchtime gal pal hotspot. I grew up about 250 miles from St James’s in central London, where handmade shoe boutiques nestle beside bespoke fedora specialists, and where the local corner shop is Fortnum & Mason’s food hall. However, via the tabloids, the goings on at Le Caprice often played out in my living room in Carlisle. Behold, HRH Diana, sleek and coquettish, striding into Le Caprice for her bang bang chicken, perhaps dining alongside megastars Mick Jagger, Liz Taylor and Nina Myskow. I guzzled that sophisticated-sounding bang bang chicken vicariously, then headed off to the local Brewers Fayre for my breaded scampi.

Now, on the old Le Caprice site, after closures and some management swapsies, Arlington is here. Some might say not a lot has changed: the decor, menu, clientele, Mayfair money, yacht tans, facelifts and the general sense that many of the diners here are merely passing through London this week, after Gstaad and before Cannes, and checking in on their Mayfair townhouses. Who is going to cook for themselves when you’re on a schedule like that? At Arlington, people table-hop, air-kiss and still eat bang bang chicken, which is just a runnier version of chicken satay, as I learned to my puzzlement on reaching London in the 1990s. It’s satisfying, sweet, crunchy, chickeny stodge, although Arlington’s version has a delectable undertone of barbecue sauce.

You might well order that chicken as a starter before the salmon fishcake with sorrel sauce entree and a bowl of rhubarb crumble with custard to finish. Jerry Hall’s next husband could manage almost the whole menu without putting in teeth. That isn’t a criticism, but more a note on the misapprehension that, back in the 1990s, the moneyed and marvellous swarmed the Ivy, the Wolseley, Le Caprice et al for the complex cooking.

They did not. They chose these Coutts-standard canteens for their exclusivity, for the shield they provided from the hoi polloi and for the menus filled with risotto nero, dressed crab and chocolate mousse. They still do. Arlington is a place for people who want tablecloths, lemon wedges wrapped in muslin, endive with roquefort, and all-day poached eggs on muffins. Basically, this is good-quality, spruced-up nursery food for those who find mastication arduous.

All that said, Arlington is a terrific place to waste a few hours, sip a coastal martini and eat some well-coloured on-the-shell scallops backstroking in garlic butter. You can peruse the David Bailey portraits on every wall; even when you go to powder your nose in the ladies’ loo, you’re overlooked by an imperious Jean Shrimpton. Of course we had the bang bang chicken, garnished with sesame seeds and some flung-about coriander. I began eating it daintily, with a knife and fork, but soon gave up. This is a scoop-and-shovel kind of dish and, due to its sweetness and shards of roast peanut, a delicious one at that. Fish and chips were a less successful choice, despite the fearsomely impressive-looking piece of haddock. The batter was not up to much at all, and couldn’t be rectified no matter how much salt I threw at it; at least its accompanying tartare sauce had great zeal.

A main of tuna loin was seared on the outside and dark pink through the middle, and came on spiced al dente lentils – nicely judged, if not especially exciting. Arlington’s caesar salad, however, which comprises large unchopped romaine lettuce leaves, croutons, decidedly non-dainty chunks of parmesan and a draping of good anchovies, is showstoppingly good. Both of our puddings were truly fantastic, too. Who knew that something as everyday-sounding as “mousse aux deux chocolats” – or two large quenelles of milk and white chocolate mousse – could be such a highlight?

It’s almost as if, for decades now, this same room has been serving spoilt, grown-up babies the things they actually want, and I now count myself among them. When you’re offered rhubarb crumble here, it won’t be deconstructed or a playful riff on the old-school classic. No, instead, it is a moist, sweet, pink rhubarb crumble, tipped out on to a plate for you and served with a jug of vanilla custard. The crumble-to-fruit ratio is half and half, as any sane person knows is correct. Arlington does Britain’s best crumble, and I’ve thought about it hourly ever since.

There are certainly better restaurants, dining-wise, in St James’s, but few are as interesting or infantilising to spend time in. Arlington is a new place doing the same old things. It ain’t broke, and neither is its the clientele, so nobody needs to fix it.

  • Arlington 20 Arlington Street, London SW1, 020-3856 1000. Open Mon-Fri, lunch noon- 3pm, dinner 5.30-11pm; Sat & Sun, brunch 11am-4pm, dinner 5.30-11pm (10pm Sun). From about £55 a head for three courses, plus drinks and service.