This weekend, I ended up having two un-pre-planned meals in London's tourist hot spots -- on Leicester Square and in Covent Garden.
First, was dinner at The Hampshire Bar & Restaurant, part of the plush Radisson Edwardian chain. We were en-route to the theatre, it was sunny and there were tables outside.
The biggest 'pro' was the people watching (where else would you see a couple of dozen of superheroes trying and failing to push a bemused London taxi?).
The biggest 'con' was the slow service (you are on Leicester Square, you will be busy, hire more staff). After half an hour we enquired how much longer it would be for the starters, and were told it would be 15 more minutes - time we simply didn't have to spare with the theatre waiting. We never got the condiments seen on other tables, plus had to repeat requests for water (for which we had to share glasses as apparently they didn't have enough) and for the bill.
The food - from a classic European style menu - was decent enough though, and not too unreasonably priced considering the location. We sampled the fillet of beef (£20) with a nice dauphinoise gratin (though, of course, not enough cheese for my liking) and a peppery jus, and the rib eye (£16) with bearnaise and beautiful jenga-like chips, crisped to perfection thanks to more than one session in the fryer.
The portions were a good size.
Both cuts of meat were very nice, but comparing them together I found to my surprise that I prefer the stronger flavour of the rib to the more silky and pricier fillet.
We washed it down with a cherry-scented Rioja (£22) and Pimms. The latter seemed staggeringly pricy to me at £8, until it was pointed out that the tag probably reflected standard cocktail priced rather than (weak) spirit and mixed ones.
The following day, struck by hunger and shopping fatigue in Covent Garden, we ended up in Tuttons, which I later discovered is part of a mini empire of eateries around the old flower market.
The white table cloths and modern art on the walls strove for a moderately classy atmosphere.
We started with a bowl of pretty decent olives (£1.95), which was just as well as the bread baskets delivered to other tables never graced ours.
Despite the place being largely empty, the wait for the main course felt pretty long. The fillet of sea-bass (£14.95) was well cooked, with a crispy skin. The accompanying "tomato and black olive gnocchi" was a disappointment though, featuring bog standard gnocchi (from a packet?) alongside chopped up black olives and tomatoes. We also tried the fish of the day with a moreish beurre blanc sauce and green beans.
The waiter-recommended glasses of white Rioja (£5.75) and a new-world-style Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (£4.13) were very nice, but the experience was soured by service at the end.
No one seemed to want to take our card - not even if after we got up and put on coats. And then, when he was finally cornered, the waiter asked if we wanted to leave him a tip on top of the included service charge. We suggested that perhaps we did not, at which point he went on a major rant about how the service charge was shared between all the staff rather than kept by the individual waiters. Surely that's fairer anyway - the guys in the kitchen contribute as much, and often much more, to my enjoyment of a meal than the front of house.
The verdict: The quality of food on the tourist trail - at least in London - has improved immeasurably over the years, and you can now get a pretty decent meal.
Be prepared for (very) slow service though.
Of course, with a bit of research, there are also some real gems only a stone’s throw away even from the ultra-touristy areas.
The Hampshire Bar and Restaurant, Radisson Edwardian Hampshire Hotel, Leicester Square , WC2H 7LH; Tel. 0207 666 0902; Tube: Leicester Square
Tuttons Brasserie & Bar, 11/12 Russell Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5HZ; Tel. 0207 257 8625; Tube: Covent Garden