Here is a restaurant I’ve eaten at maybe three or four times. I have fond memories of the first visit in 2008. That evening was provoked by a Giles Coren review, which praised the relatively new Giaconda Dining Room (as it was known then) for being straightforward and un-selfconcious, for using cheap cuts, and for bucking the trend of the new restaurant behemoths of the day, whilst “packing a lot of people into a small space and smiling a lot.” He was right, too. Great cooking, small but buzzing room.
Roll forward to Autumn 2012 – Giaconda Dining Rooms (note the plural). I can still picture, maybe even taste, a superb, generous, veal osso-bucco and saffron risotto. There was also a crispy pig trotter salad that stuck in the teeth, served with bitter frisée lettuce … which I wanted to like because it was old school, though rather wished I was eating a more modern interpretation at somewhere like St John Bread and Wine. But I mostly remember that what was once a tight, bustling, living room of a restaurant, now felt empty and, to be frank, a bit awkward because the fawn coloured extension to the rear sucked life from the old space. Less cosy dining room, more bland conservatory.
Jog, finally, on to shiny 2014. I’m sure I’d heard rumours of closure, but they’re still there, tucked away between Soho and Centre Point on that funny street of electric guitars and saxophones. Now they’re La Giaconda, which is what the site was called back in the days when Bowie was more publicity friendly. The front room has been re-done and is now a café – the decor functional, hard and, as is their wont, unaffected by trend or fashion. The rear houses the restaurant. Still fawn and a little stark.
The food is as I remember. Rustic French with a day trip or two to Italy and Spain. Reading Giles’s review again, I see the unremarkable and forgettable beetroot and curd salad is as it always has been, and that the menu is still resolutely for meat eaters – there’s not one fish or vegetarian dish in the main courses (a few fish options are read out by the waitress but I can never focus on ‘specials’ that aren’t written down). There’s the huge and enjoyable Eton mess from 2008 too. This and a kind of quince and chestnut trifle (also huge) were both an uplifting end to the meal.
All fairly routine. So why the long digestion?
Well I went, this last time, on a PR invite. A relatively rare (for me) acceptance of a freebie. In these circumstances I never promise to write anything, but always feel I ought to. I never promise to be only positive, but it’s difficult to be wholly objective. I never promise not to criticise, but even constructive criticism comes with a pang of guilt.
For some time, I thought I’d just mention that One Good Reason to head to La Giaconda was the tripe, chorizo and butter bean stew. There aren’t many non-Asian restaurants where you can take down a bit of stomach lining. La Giaconda’s is entry level stuff. Which is great. The tripe was clean smelling and mostly about textural enjoyment – just a wee hint of funk, lifted by light spicing of the chorizo and probably a bit of tomato in the braising stock.
But would only mentioning the tripe as #OGR be flippant (in respect of the restaurant) and also mask a few other things (for prospective eaters)?
Because there’s definitely more to La Giaconda than tripe. There are many who will enjoy its menu, unaffected as ever by small plate tendencies a hundred yards to the west. Others ought to be drawn in by a list of dishes that may as well be titled ‘gout’, rather than ‘main course’: veal kidneys with mustard, chicory and black pudding; lamb steak, kidney brochette and wild mushroom crumble (the kidneys and mushrooms were particularly good); venison with red cabbage; duck breast with brussels sprouts … I could go on. The wine list covers a fair amount of ground, too – with a good selection between the £19-30 mark.
However those highlights mask some home truths. The menu is apparently tweaked daily, yet could easily be the same as in 2008. Which on the one hand is cute – Ground Hog Day is a great film. But, on the other, echoes a general tiredness in service and maybe even some of the cooking. Possibly more significantly, though, is the fact that the one thing Gilo couldn’t write, were he to return again, is the bit about “packing a lot of people into a small space and smiling a lot.”
There’s a chicken and egg thing going on here. La Giaconda isn’t new any more, despite the name change and the PR invites. The burger kids and tapas tweeters aren’t eating here (though I’m not sure they’d like it anyway) and the once cosy room is now not one room, nor cosy. So there is no buzz. Without lots of people, the menu stays the same, and maybe not always so fresh, and some who come could leave underwhelmed. Were La Giaconda to close, there would be cries of sadness from people who haven’t shown it custom for a while.
The feeling I ought to write something. The difficulty of being honest.
La Giaconda in 3 words
Not trendy. Resolute.
Starters hover around £7. Mains mostly £16-17. Desserts £6.50. Portions are generous.
www.giacondadining.com - 9 Denmark St, WC2 H8LS - 0207 240 3334