This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 30/10/2017.
What the closure of Albert’s Table says about Croydon
Albert’s Table in South Croydon has suddenly closed – why?
I’ve been reviewing restaurants in the Croydon Citizen for a few years. I’ve always tried to be positive about independent Croydon(ish) venues, only giving MeatLiquor and Boxpark a bit of a kicking (which both can take on the chin pretty easily). However, there was another kicking that I’d been building up to since I started this gig: Albert’s Table, which is now, and seemingly without warning, no more. No announcement was made; the restaurant’s social media simply ceased operations. Trip Advisor records the annoyance of pre-booked customers, some of whom knew nothing about the closure until they turned up. It can’t help but leave a sour taste behind.
I found Albert’s Table an ongoing challenge. Anecdotally, a fair few of my fellow citizens had experienced meals there that weren’t quite up to scratch, or knew those who had. We are all, however, committed to the Citizen‘s view that if we didn’t have to be negative about Croydon, we wouldn’t be. Or, if we must criticise, that we would do so constructively. Croydon has received (and receives) a lot of flak; the Citizen is in part a response to the unfair anti-Croydon stereotype.
Now that the place is gone, however, I feel that the embargo can be lifted. It gives me no pleasure that the founders’ dreams have been crushed and a number of now ex-employees face economic uncertainty. This is a sad thing for all concerned, especially the poorly paid (more on this later) front-of-house and kitchen staff. And yet, and yet. I’m not surprised in the least. This is an oft-told tale in the restaurant business. Even the best can have bad luck. But Albert’s Table, despite a fairly good reputation, was not – in my view at least – all that it appeared to be. We just didn’t feel able to say so.
Don’t assume that you’re the best thing in town and that we should be grateful
Perhaps that was because we needed what it did for us just a bit too much. It put Croydon on the fine dining map of London. We were so happy to have something that looked and felt that way that we didn’t want to be seen to walk out of the party in a huff. I remain somewhat conflicted on this issue, especially as I’ve since left Croydon. It’s a classic cultural cringe. It shows that for all of the positivity around Silicon Croydon and crafty beer festivals, we’ve got a long way to go.
The fact is that for such a restaurant to work and stay in business, not just outside the centre of town but outside the very rich suburbs with high population density (Chiswick, Wandsworth Common, Clapham Old Town and so on), both product and service have to be perfect every time. There are only so many birthdays and anniversaries that justify this sort of expense for the average local punter. Such a place needs repeat custom.
Unfortunately, I just never got the impression that Albert’s Table was truly committed to that kind of excellence – unlike, say, Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, or Trinity in Clapham. If you’re going to charge their prices, everything has to be perfect. There shouldn’t be a smug, slightly provincial assumption that you’re the best thing in town and that we should be grateful.
I went there twice, both some time ago. Initially, I was excited. Croydon had two fine dining restaurants cheek by jowl. I was a regular at Malcolm John’s Le Cassoulet on Selsdon Road, which cut no corners in its interpretation of French bourgeois cuisine in a luxe brasserie setting. I loved it, but it went the way of the dodo years ago, partly due to its prices and the inherent challenges of the post credit crunch economy. While it lasted, however, it was a jewel. Having something this good in Croydon made the journey to Chez Bruce seem just that little bit more hassle. And whilst its clientele may have been a little older than I, at least they weren’t a bunch of Sloane-y bankers playing drinking games with Pauillac.
This was a place which would tell you how to eat your beef
Albert’s Table was different. A far more British take on fine dining, it took itself very seriously indeed, with lots of talk about provenance. This was a place which was willing to tell its customers how to eat their beef. If you like well done, they said, choose the stew not the steak, which must be served med-rare at least – and whilst I might agree personally, that’s pretty ballsy.
And the food was fine. Standard Michelin-ambitious trad Brit, all cooked perfectly well… and with some significant ‘buts’. There was a lot of recycling. The same mashed root veg with starter and main course, for one. What tasted like a remarkably similar jus accompanied both beef and venison. The result was that I’d effectively ordered the same dish for starter and main, and there was no way to know this until my main turned up with braised dark meat protein under a dark sauce with the same root mash.
After the meal, I suggested to the manager that someone should have pointed this out. She apologised nicely enough – but then came the killer. When asked if tips went to the staff on top of wages or made up the minimum wage, she stammered, went red and said that they were lucky to have such good jobs. After that, she scarpered. I left unimpressed.
I got the strongest up-sell I’ve ever had anywhere
I went back after I’d read a few half decent reviews. By this time, Le Cassoulet was closed and I wanted to go somewhere nice with my mum. I felt that I should give the place another go. While the food was once again fine, and I avoided any of the slip-ups of the first go, I left just as angry. When it came to wine time, I got the strongest up-sell I’ve ever had anywhere, including in Mayfair w**kpits where no one is spending their own money – or at least if they are, they could buy the building. I asked, politely, whether the manager could explain to me in detail why the wine she had suggested was so particularly well suited to our meal.
Again, she stammered that I should choose what I wanted. I did, and ate a meal that was fine, but curiously old-fashioned. It was the sort of food that Gordon Ramsay got rich on twenty years ago and which has to be perfectly executed to be anything other than… well, ‘meh’.
So to conclude, Croydon’s brief era of fine dining has come to an end. Market forces were always going to make it a tough gig. But I do think, in part, that those in charge were the authors of their own destruction.
What worries me more is the empty spaces in Croydon’s Restaurant Quarter. Pizza Express (and its private equity ownership) took the view that footfall couldn’t justify a presence. Mirch Massala has relocated. Bianco couldn’t make it work. Are there any incentives that could be offered by the council to help regeneration?