IRL, as we kids of the Internet say, I work near St. Paul’s. I’ve been there nearly two years, and they’ve been doing up the cathedral since I arrived. They needed to – the Portland columns were smogged, the walls Blitz-scarred and dowdy. Rain had muted the statues; Wren’s great dome curved like a grey, grubby bosom.
Goethe called architecture ‘frozen music’. If that’s true, St. Paul’s is a crystallised Bohemian Rhapsody, a Barock opera, vast as a kraken, roaring about judgement (‘Spare him his life!’), mantrically echoing (‘Bismillah! … Bismillah!’) and preaching about Beelzebub and devils put aside. At times in its history, St. Paul’s, too, has been full of Queen, and like the song, it’s draped in frippery, palpably ridiculous, gaspingly accomplished, imbricated with quirk and nuance, and most importantly, most purely, thrillingly and immovably – it’s camp.
A bundle of contradictions, that cathedral. It’s the religious radio tower of the nation, the monument to what’s left of our church, to 500 bumbling years of genteel, drably understated, limply muscular Christianity. But the triumphalism of Paul’s, its swaggering, cocksure foppishness, are utterly un-English. Wren’s hybrid Baroque is as ridiculous as a Fabergé egg in a cup of Cornish blueware. We Brits prefer the decent, stout and quiet, the making-do-and-mending, stiff-lipped diligence of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s modest pay. St. Paul’s is vulgarly popish, gaudy as a billionaire’s girl.
Which is why I love it, of course, and why I welcome the opening – amidst the revamp – of a restaurant in its crypt. That's a ghoulish word, but the location isn’t. They’ve made superb use of the space, which is airy, bright and high-ceilinged; and the wide windows and split-level, the glass-walled kitchen and the clean, Nordic-ish furniture, bring a cool-in-summer, warm-in-winter aesthetic.
The menu is British. Stoutly, Monty Pythonishly British. They list the prices in – brace yourself – ‘British pounds’, which should come with a gigantic, flashing ‘WTF?’ sign. As opposed to, er, the Sudanese pound? The Saint Helenian pound? Other pointless affectations include an offer of ‘Forgotten Vegetable – Runner Beans’. Forgotten by whom? But the attention to detail is impressive – decent cutlery, hessian napkins, Riedel glasses, comfy chairs.
I went with Tim Hayward, one of the country’s best food writers, for a thoroughly decent lunch. I kicked off with a salad of wood pigeon and pointed cabbage: now there’s a brassica we don’t see enough of these days. It was a lovely, nouvelle-cuisiney salade tiède: the pigeon warm from the pan, its flesh squidgy and bloody. A few grapes were a smart addition, and green fans of flat-leafed parsley brought a pleasant grassy bitterness. This was a delicious, almost unimprovable dish. For once, I wasn’t hoovering up other people’s food, but Tim’s salad of squid, peas and chilli looked exactly the kind of midsummer plate you’d want to eat here.
A fillet of sea trout was slightly overcooked, though its salad of yellow bean, fennel and verjuice (the condiment du jour, it seems) was inventive, fronded with dill. Tim’s beef fillet tail, too, looked like it had got a bit familiar with the stove, but they didn’t ask how he wanted it cooked, and beef is seldom as rare as you'd like it when the kitchen decides. Nor did they notice they’d cracked the little Kilner jar of horseradish, and that shards of glass were scattered across the plate – though they handled the issue professionally. An Eton mess was bog-standard cream and dust, and an ice cream sandwich OK. At 20 'British pounds' for the three courses, this is value that tends towards the excellent. The Restaurant at St. Paul’s is doing almost everything right, and almost everything better than you’d expect.
In Oxford, a 19th century church has been converted into a bar called Frevd (pronounced Freud – presumably the V / U stuff seemed a good idea at the time). Oddly enough, the church was called St. Paul’s. When the developers arrived in the late Eighties, they met with strop and bluster from the normally mild-mannered curates of that old, churchy town. And it’s hard to blame the chaplains: they knew what was coming. In the vaunted chancel of that second-rate bar, I’ve seen chaps lick canned whipped cream from the bellies of Freshers’ Week strumpets, and towards the nave, I've watched urinals overflow with sick.
I’m no fan of organised religion, but if the church wants to save itself - and, let's face it, it must be pretty desperate to stick a café-diner in this consecrated basement - it has only one option. Relight hellfire. Put Father Arnall back in the pulpit. Tell the worms where they squirm. Every society in which religion is ascendant presents human existence as a simple binary: supplicate or burn. Treat people as sheep, and watch them flock and grovel in the pews.
But until the trumpet sounds, we can enjoy the fact that we’re hale, nourished and free. And knowing that, we should go to restaurants like this one for lingering lunches, and fill our cups to the brim.
The Restaurant at St. Paul’s, St. Paul’s Churchyard, London EC4
Tel. +44 (0)20 7248 0269
See on the Map
Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £40
All pictures mine except the exterior shot, courtesy of Guardian Travel.