The Delaunay, Covent Garden
020 7499 8558
by Malcolm Eggs
Christmas Eve at Paddington Station. People are everywhere. Cases trundle, big hanging clocks flip between digits, hungover men and women trot along platforms, panicked by the strangely widespread notion that eight minutes is not long enough to walk the distance of four carriages.
Me? I am in WH Smith, in a huge queue, waiting to buy a magazine. I wanted to grab it quickly but it is now on the verge of being untenable because, on this entirely predictable bottleneck of a day, they have decided to employ just one till operator. Understaffing! It is the bane of English life. How many times has it led to me waiting in huge, bored crowd at a bar? I want to buy a drink and their reason for existing is to sell it to me but they can't, because of a misguided austerity measure. Or being told in a hipster restaurant, "I'm sorry, but there's a huge wait and everything will be substandard because we have so many customers today". My dear restaurant, I always reply (inside my mind), do you believe in what you do? If so, you should expect to be popular.
I think wistfully back to my birthday, of eating breakfast at The Wolseley's new sister restaurant The Delaunay. It is the epitome of not having an understaffing problem. When I arrived at 11.31am I was consulted by no less than three staff on the implications of missing the breakfast menu (several egg-based dishes, they established, were still available to me courtesy of the a la carte menu). After being led through to a spacious and classy room (dark wood-panelled walls, monochrome marble floor tiles) I sat, spellbound, and watched the restaurant's remarkable - almost naval - systems at work. What were the ranks and roles? There were at least seventeen staff compared, at this time of day, with thirteen diners. Some wore black suits, several wore waistcoats and others were all in white. A few had aprons. The majority wore light grey ties, while two or three sported darker ones that seemed to give them huge amounts of authority. I saw a dark-tie quibbling with a light-tie about using the wrong sort of tablecloth.
Five of them attended to me during my breakfast, which was eggs Arlington (£8.50) - i.e. what most places call eggs Royale, or Benedict with smoked salmon in place of ham. My over-riding impression was of its neatness. Several sheets of smoked salmon were shaped - by a team of salmon shapers, no doubt - into a thick orange wheel whose edge at no point breached the muffin perimeter. A tidy circle of yellow Hollandaise shone out from its centre. The effect was of a kind of triple brunch eclipse. The whole thing towered to around six inches high. It tasted very good. The egg was perfectly poached. The salmon tasted reasonably well - if a touch cost-effectively - sourced. If the muffin was homemade, I salute them for replicating the delicious qualities of a mass-produced muffin so accurately.
On my right, two ladies with necklaces on the outside of their rollneck jumpers discussed whether or not to have the schnitzel. Almost everywhere else, waiters huddled in pairs or threes. They would confer and glance around; then one would suddenly break free and deliver a message to someone eighteen feet away, who would respond by hotfooting it to a knife that needed wiping. Mini-processions marched to tables carrying trays of coffee, teapots, wine, cocktails...
"Next please." I am roused from my daydream by the woman at the till. She calls me forward and I pay for my magazine. During the time it takes Christmas, New Year and early January to occur, I will stand in several more queues caused by willful understaffing. Often I will think back to The Delaunay and wonder if it could be the model for a different, happier version of England. I conclude that this would definitely be true for the 'customers', and probably for the 'dark-ties' as well.