The terrible champagne bar: a misunderstood icon
I enjoy reading food writers. I’m not a huge restaurant aficionado myself. I love going for posh dinners but can always find something more frivolous to spend the money on, and years of glaring at calorie counts on the backs of packets and jars has given me an irrational fear of creamy sauces I can’t actually see being prepared in front of me. But I do like to fill myself up on food critics’ findings: Marina, Fay, Jay, Grace – even Giles on occasion – and all the other greats. Writing about food is a little like writing about music (which I do do, badly). Really f*cking hard. It has its own lexicon, amazing adjectives good and bad, that you only get in specialist publications or pornography: pillowy; avoirdupois; ossified; crumby; treacly; gelatinous – I could go on.
As northerners always claim when visiting London, “Nice, but I couldn’t live there”. The stress of explaining myself and doing the food justice would give me permanent keyboard-fright, so I prefer to remain a consumer rather than a creator and stay in lane doing the things I do well – or at least people tell me I do well, who knows?
But I wanted a piece of this. I’m a naturally… shall we say, observant person, in that I like to comment on the things that happen to me and the world around me, usually as they’re happening. I review the Guardian Blind Dates most Saturday mornings and while that is satisfying enough, those blogs are really more about me than they are the two hapless lovebirds being offered up for my poison pen. So I have longed to extend my critical eye elsewhere, just this once, to review something very dear to my heart. A location that I’ve derided so often in the past, that people send me photographs of similarly hopeless establishments to get my opinion – there is no greater honour.What is it I enjoyed mocking so much about the wilfully useless champagne bar that used to sit in the “luxury” part of London’s original Westfield shopping centre, in Shepherd’s Bush, near where I live? Its location, for a start: plonked unceremoniously in the middle of a busy shopping mall, under a staircase, possibly one of the least relaxing and decadent places to kick back and have a glass since Joan Collins’ plane seat tipped back and levelled her in the Campari adverts. The stools, instantly carbon-dating the place to 2008 thanks to their chrome perches and white leatherette seats with edges scuffed. The sad production line of glasses at empty place settings, awaiting the raucous laughter of exhausted shoppers and the splash of “this’ll do” fizz in their dainty gizzards. The staff, who all looked trapped in a prison fashioned on Tanya Turner’s idea of sophistication, dusting said glasses and turning boredom into performance art. The menu, too, which I refused to believe anyone ordered from until I saw a couple (heterosexual, obviously) gamely tucking into syphilitic blinis one Valentine’s Day. You might think I’m being snobby, but that’s not it at all. I don’t judge these people; I just want more for them. I love drinking champagne, and I think the least you deserve after trotting round the hellmouth of capitalism is somewhere nice to drink it. Whither the luxe feeling, the delicious elitism only a glass of bubbles can bring? Especially if you don’t get to do it very often? No, this simply wouldn’t do! To make things worse, up the staircase was another champagne bar, also terrible but not as endearingly, which had the “advantage” of also serving macarons – a fire I am not willing to start here, so let’s pretend that simply didn’t exist.
Like most of the women in Indiana Jones movies, what I began to loathe I soon started to love. I found myself rooting for it, strangely. There it was, as glamorous as a pair of tights hung to dry over a washbasin in 10 Rillington Place, but still fulfilling its remit of serving champers to shoppers who were just grateful not to be sitting in the M&S Café further down the mall. My heart would leap upon seeing it, especially if there were another couple mid-woo, clinking glasses of something pink and bubbly, as their afternoon tea sandwiches curled up in appreciation beside them. When a travel company asked me for my top tips for places to go in London – money actually exchanged hands for this – I recommended a first date at my marble-topped fizz bae, and nobody spotted it before publication. I toyed with the idea of going there myself, or perhaps even having my book launch there, but these fevered ravings coincided with a period of temperance I took for most of 2017; I’d never come up with such a zany plan when drunk. Still, I naturally assumed that one day, like Han and Leia, we would give in to the inevitable and come together. Perhaps I’d even try a blini.
All the worst personal tragedies seem to happen in the rain, don’t they? It came. The watershed moment.
One day, in miserable, unseasonable August, I arrived at the gaudy “Village” within Westfield to find only a hoarding and the air of demolition around my favourite glitzy truckstop. Stools, gone. Blinis, binned. Glasses, vanished. Staff, presumably released back into the wild or staffing the changing rooms at Zara. I clawed at the fence, desperate for it not to be so, not understanding why this moonlight flit had happened.
And then my boyfriend explained they were opening a new one outside the future John Lewis in the inexplicable extension to Shepherd’s Bush’s already galactic shopping monolith. So I was kind of placated, knowing that in some form, we would be reunited one day.
That day is coming. March 20th. And I’m going to be there. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone and I shan’t let this slip through my fingers again – and other clichés. It may not be the same wonky stools and dusty flutes – two drag names for you there – and the blinis may be fresh and the staff smiley, but for old times’ sake, I will embrace the new and there SHALL be bubbles.
Stay tuned for my debut as a champagne bar critic, right here.
Header image: Kate Moss looking 💯 in the recent Absolutely Fabulous movie.
Photo of me looking miserable: Paul Lang
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