The problem though became apparent when I started to take a picture of the food for the blog. After I had snapped off one picture, the manager came running over and told me that photography was forbidden. Now, at restaurants like The Fat Duck, they don’t like the perpetual lighting of flash photography (fair enough) but they’re happy for you to take pictures with the flash off. Here though in J Sheekey, even that wasn’t the case.
The clue to their photography angst comes ironically in the guise of framed photographs on the walls. A Sir Patrick Stewart here, a Laurence Olivier there and a John Gielgud staring over your shoulder at your starter. This is a restaurant in the heart of theatre land and they pride themselves on attracting the acting famous. Accordingly, at the first sign of a camera flashbulb the staff dive on you like the President’s Secret Service detail on seeing a brandished pistol, with management here protecting the celebs from the dreaded paps. When did I wake up in Hollywood? The message is clear, this is their restaurant, not yours, you’re merely a walk on extra, a face in the crowd, you don’t have any lines (and never will) so just sit down and be happy that you’re allowed in. Ps, I didn’t see any famous people that day and the squid whose picture I took didn’t seem to mind.
Despite the scaffolding over the front door making the restaurant look even more closed than normal, the restaurant was in fact thriving and at three o’clock on a Friday afternoon, it seemed at full capacity with tables showing no signs of being in a hurry to leave, and these were certainly not business lunches. Perhaps therefore they do have a recipe for success and a strong loyal following and so I guess good luck to them.
But it struck me more as the meal went on, it wasn’t just the photography thing that bothered me, there was no attempt to engage me as a customer, waiter comes, takes order, waiter goes, a few minutes later food arrives, we eat, waiter clears plates. No smile, no warmth, no personality. I can’t remember that at any time they enquired whether the food was alright or if we enjoyed the meal. Perhaps because the restaurant was so busy the waiters were having a tough day, maybe several had called in sick and they were short staffed. On a previous visit on a decidedly less busy day, I do remember them being much more charming.
Apart from the hiccup of bringing me the wrong starter (which when pointed out disappeared as efficiently as it had arrived to be replaced by my actual starter), the impression from Friday's meal was that this is an efficiently run machine that caters to the theatre crowd providing two tiers of service, genuine affection for the insiders versus ‘efficient distance’ for those outside. For the first time, I could see the shared DNA with its sister restaurant The Ivy. This is a shame because next door at the J Sheekey Oyster Bar, every time we’ve had a great experience (I guess celebs don’t go to the Oyster Bar) and even at Le Caprice, another group restaurant, things are quite different.
The seafood was good, always is, and on previous occasions, such impersonality has not been a feature of my experience, so maybe this is a one off, but with so many other establishments delivering great food and great service every time, I really don’t feel a need to rush back.