The Spread Eagle

Crooms Hill

Yup, folks – it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for…

A long one today – sorry.

I hadn’t intended to visit the newly-refurbished Spread Eagle last night – I had a dinner date in central London – but it all went pear-shaped so I decided to have a drink there – as a taster for visiting properly later. Somehow, though, once we were inside we ended up going for the works after all…

I hadn’t wanted to like the Spread Eagle. It annoyed me that yet another Greenwich institution had been corporatised by Greenwich Inc, which until the refurb had at least not done too much to the actual look of the place. I loved those little cubby-holes for private dining and the quirky décor. As soon as we found out that it was closing to redevelop, we went one last time so that we would have some sort of “control” meal to compare with the new-look S.E. It was good, interesting food, on the whole – we had the tasting menu, if memory serves, and it was perfectly satisfactory. I drank in the décor for the last time and “enjoyed” the splendid sink in the upstairs ladies’ loo (ask any girlie who’s been.)

Our other great loss was the ramshackle ‘antiques’ shop next door – which had originally been owned by the former proprietor of the Spread Eagle restaurant. I used to love that staircase leading up into gloomy labyrinthine bookshelves and down into even gloomier domestic paraphernalia. It was a “proper” antique shop – covered in dust and thoroughly enjoyable. It had a very long closing down sale and then one day it was gone.

We’ve been pressing our noses against the glass since then. For a while we started to wonder if they were actually going to bother re-opening – nothing seemed to be happening – then all of a sudden it was done. Swept away were the cubbyholes and the dusty antiques, brought in were giant chandeliers, downlighters and dozens of paintings on the wall.

And it’s those paintings which will be the main selling-point of the new Spread Eagle. I had no idea about this collection – built up by the former owners of the restaurant, the Moy family, including the eccentric Dick Moy, last in line. Presumably it was kept in their private house or somewhere else out of public view because yesterday was the first I knew about it. I’d heard there were paintings of Greenwich in the new restaurant – but I’d expected cod junk-shop prints and auction-house finds.

What is actually here is extraordinary. It’s a collection that easily outnumbers and perhaps outclasses that of the Queen’s House’s ground floor gallery, and what some of the earlier paintings lack in “Old Master”ness they make up for in quirk, local and historical interest and – well – sheer numbers. Each of these works is utterly fascinating – from a local person’s, a historian’s and an art lover’s view and although the tables get in the way a bit, if you go on a quiet day, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty walking around – every wall in the place is covered – yes – the corridors, loos, staircases too. The modern work is just as interesting – Dick Moy patronised a couple of local artists as well as the odd famous one.

What’s even better is that they give you a full-colour glossy catalogue with your meal so that you can contextualise the work while you eat. My favourite? I can’t decide between a delicate Tissot etching and a print of a strange-looking ruin in Westcombe Park that I’d never heard of. If you don’t read it all you can take the catalogue home as a gift.

But onto the restaurant. Yes, they’ve lost the cubby-holes. Yes, they’ve lost the quirk. Yes, they’ve lost the joyful antiques shop next door. But what they have lost in character, they’ve made up for in elegance. This is a HANDSOME refurbishment – the walls (what you can see of them under the paintings) a delicate shade of green, the coving picked out in white. Downlighters give it a modern feel and if there are a few too many tables set for my liking – it’s a little squashed – they are at least splendid.

The least successful bit, IMHO is the first room – the bar – which has the tables set around the walls like a cross between a public bar and a waiting room, which, I suppose, is exactly what it is. They’ve kept the lovely cast-iron staircase and I noticed a little piece of what must be the original wooden fittings behind it that they’ve left bare – a nice touch. The bar at the back remains the same in essentials.

The main dining room downstairs feels very classy and they sat us in the unchanged bay window – my favourite position – though I suspect it was more to make the place look full than to please me. The paintings dominate, of course, but are not by any means an unwelcome intrusion. Next door, the private dining room in the old antiques shop ground floor is splendid – a fine place for a special birthday meal. The central chandelier is as sumptuous from inside as it is from the street. Upstairs is another little room – also cute, and the main dining room is much the same as downstairs – but worth making the trip to see just for the art works.

The service is friendly – though virtually nobody spoke good enough English to make anything other than basic orders – certainly questions would have been hard work, though the guy in charge seemed a bit better than the general waiting staff.

The menu looks very similar to the one before the refurb. We didn’t bother with the tasting menu as it didn’t look different enough, and went for the two-course option instead. My scallops were nicely done – not rubbery, though rather swimming in sauce and the sliced vegetable they came with was unidentifiable. It was cream and tasted of absolutely nothing but was very crunchy so had been clearly included for the texture. I thought it might be Jerusalem Artichoke, so I chewed very thoroughly (they’re not called Jerusalem Fartichokes for nothing, you know) but it wasn’t nutty enough to be that, so I’m plumping for celeriac. It wasn’t unpleasant – and the crunch was welcome. My companion (note the restaurant-critic-speak) chose seared tuna which was divine.

The mains were also perfectly good. My Companion (there it is again…) chose the beef, which was enjoyable, if accompanied with rather chewy pancetta. I had the cod – which tasted wonderful – but not like cod. Or indeed any fish. It was juicy and succulent, and flaked beautifully. Caramelised and gorgeously browned in all the right places it was utterly lovely – but not anything like cod. I’m not sure what it tasted like actually. Sweeties, I guess. Yum.

There’s an odd mix here between cutting-edge and curiously old-fashioned cookery. It’s presented in a modern enough style, but some of the techniques seem to mask the actual flavour of the food. We didn’t have desserts – but they seemed standard fare – the usual crème brulée-type options and the omnipresent pot au chocolats for the addicts. I will also watch with interest to see whether the menu ever changes.

I didn’t dare ask for any wine advice – there didn’t seem to be an obvious sommelier on duty – whose opinion I’d normally ask for a tricky combination of white fish and beef. So we plumped for a red Sancerre – light and fresh, but not, perhaps, worth the £38.50 they were charging for it. Frankly, I’d preferred the bog-standard Viognier I’d had with the first course at 3.95 a glass.

I am still in the dark as to the tipping policy at the Spread Eagle. I asked our waiter about the service charge but his English was so poor he couldn’t make himself understood. We decided to send back the bill and get the service charge removed so that we could give cash as a precaution, and the guy in charge came to speak to us. He tried hard to explain, but I still don’t get it. It seems to be ok but it’s difficult to be absolutely sure. More research is needed.

Much as I hate to say it, the Spread Eagle is still the best restaurant in town. It’s not going to get any Michelin stars in the near future, but the food is good, tasty (if somewhat unexpected sometimes) and well-presented. The place itself looks fantastic and it’s worth a visit if only for those paintings. If I were visiting for the first time and hadn’t known what was there before I’d say it was wonderful. It’s only with the benefit of knowing what was there before that you get the slightest uncomfortable feeling that something has been lost…

Check out Andrew Gilligan’s review in the Standard for another resident’s view of things.

Oh – and that sink’s still there upstairs in the ladies’ loo…

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