So there we were, dawdling around the streets of Soho after 8, looking for something exciting to eat. The Christmas lights were shining, the air was mild, the atmosphere vibrant and the place was humming with people out for the evening. We were strolling roughly in the direction of Chinatown when my companion spotted a place taking up very nearly a block. Bill’s Restaurant, read the sign. Why not try here? she suggested. People queued out of the door, but what the hell, I thought – we can always move on.
What was this place though? I had not heard of Bill’s before, and to this day have no idea who Bill is – or even if he exists. His restaurant, from what I could tell, was packed wall-to-wall with diners deep in conversation, and decked out in retro-post-industrial chic – scrubbed tables, exposed ventilation shafts, girders and lighting rigs – the stuff to make it look artificially trendy. The website explains the error of my initial thoughts, which makes it sound half way in the direction of the infamous Trois Garçons:
“Bill’s Soho restaurant has become a very popular destination in the heart of this hip area of London. Parquet floors, leather club chairs, chandeliers, vintage mirrors, and plenty of other signature Bill’s features, give it a real sparkle. Bill’s Soho restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and everything in between.”
To that I would add that the acoustics were appalling and you could barely hear yourself think above the hubbub, but at length we made ourselves understood to the meet-and-greet door person:
- “A table for two please.”
- “Have you booked?”
- “Sorry, it will be 15 minutes.”
- “OK, we’ll move on and find somewhere else”
- “WAIT! I’ll have a word with my manager….”
Off he scurried, returning with a slender, tattooed lady in tight jeans, who perused the booking sheet…. and, lo and behold, a table for two magically appeared. Funny, that.
Once seated, we perused a menu that clearly aims to be all things to all people, which makes it not unlike brewery pub grub dining with an extra cocktail list. In fact Bill’s Soho is of course part of Bill’s chain, which explains the folksy marketing-speak and apparently global list of commoditised dishes gathered as a bizarre ensemble.
Witness the journey that takes in the Middle East (hummus, assorted maze, kofta), the Med (halloumi, olives, squid), the US of A (burgers, ribs, much more), Mexico (tortillas, guacamole), the UK (fish & chips, fish pie, duck pie etc.), and many more stops along the way. I was slightly surprised it didn’t take in Asia and the Pacific Rim along the way – though nothing much surprises me these days about chain psychology.
Our waiter wasted no time in taking drinks orders. His charm and enthusiasm were welcome but he lost no opportunity to try to flog us extra drinks, courses, sides – almost anything. Given that 12.5% service charge was tacked on to the bill, this suggests to me that Bill’s is one of the establishments where service does not automatically go to the staff, but they are incentivised by management on what they sell – which to me is intrusive and certainly not in the best traditions of fine and unobtrusive table service and definitely not a fair and reasonable way to treat staff. If Bill had any notion of equity, staff would be paid well, no service charge would be added, and tips would go directly to the people who earned them.
We chose a drink labelled “bramble mojito,” which recipe I’m very confident does not feature among the Cuban classics. I’ve written before about drinking freshly-made mojito on the steps of Caesar’s Palace in Vegas while waiting for the Bellagio Fountains, so any mojito served in December in London is not going to be quite the same. Even so, this was a strange drink. The top half of each tumbler was packed with crushed ice, rendering it ice cold, but drink through the straw from the bottom of the glass and you had a warm combination of bramble juice and rum, suggesting that the barman and his cocktail shaker were barely acquainted. The ensemble was topped with a mint leaf, but of mint in the drink there was no evidence, nor indeed lime juice. In fact, this was nothing remotely resembling a mojito.
From what I could tell, most of the food was served so rapidly that fresh-to-order looked unlikely – all the quicker to get turnaround on the tables and push more punters through. Bill’s motto is evidently to keep the tills ringing!
This was at least was a good reason to choose the burger option and request it be cooked medium-rare. My companion chose a spinach, bacon and avocado salad, baked croutons, grated pecorino and “Bill’s dressing.” I mention the dressing because a bottle of it appeared with the condiments for my rocket and pecorino side salad. One size fits all in salad dressings rather than dedicated to and compatible with the salad in question. To be fair I could have chosen mayo that presumably came from a jar rather than fresh eggs.
Her salad did at least look good and fresh, topped with crossed bacon rashers and missing only a poached egg on top, though the comment from its diner was less than impressive: “not v nice” in fact. The bacon not crispy, which is what you want, the proportion of avocado too small, and spinach too big. Bill, please take note.
The burger was a burger: it came as ordered, medium rare in a brioche-style bun, with pickles and all the usual additions, plus the usual vertically-mounted cup of limp fries. There was absolutely nothing exceptional about it to report, in quality, appearance or flavour. It did not stand out from the crowd in the way, for example, that Honest Burgers achieved.
The waiter did return to try to flog us desserts and drinks but that was enough. Getting out into the Soho air meant we could at least have a decent conversation, but if I’m convinced of anything it is that Bill’s is not any sort of destination I would choose to visit; it’s a fuelling station en route to somewhere interesting and memorable. Bill’s is a triumph of style over substance and, in true chain tradition, cares far more about piling in the punters and extracting their money than in any form of excellence.
Sorry Bill, me old mate, but I’m not tempted to return!