Some restaurants arrive on the scene all guns blazing with self-hype and wild promises. The Maine, newly opened in Mayfair, central London, describes itself as a “blend of old-world British elegance, New England extravagance and subterranean decadence”. I know: I’m exhausted already, too.
Yet, having spent a Saturday lunchtime in this hectic, multi-floored pleasure palace, there are definitely bones of truth among the balderdash. What is more extravagant than taking over a Grade II-listed Georgian building on the west side of Hanover Square and turning it into a gargantuan party venue with seating for 350? If you passed this former residence of the Duke of Montrose during a sightseeing jaunt, you’d certainly be struck by the house’s elegant, imposing frontage, because this is how London looks in a souvenir snowglobe. And now Canadian restaurateur Joey Ghazal has created a vast, dark, twinkling brasserie restaurant/nightclub in its basement, where one could easily imagine Dita Von Teese swirling about in a giant martini glass and where, I’m told, there’s a VIP room through a hole in the bathroom wall.
There’s also a “Tavern”, with brick alcoves extravagantly furnished in red leather and, on the ground floor, a Georgian-styled “Drawing Room” that makes you feel a bit like you’re on the set of the Netflix drama Bridgerton, or maybe a Las Vegas hotel called The King George. It’s got an olde-worlde feeling, sure, and a strong synthetic aftertaste, though that might have just been my soft-baked cookie dessert (a similar one is available at Pizza Hut) or the large, rather sloppy “crispy fish taco” in pico de gallo and hot sauce – but more of the food in a moment. More pressingly, much of the drawing room’s seating plan forces couples to sit side by side, as if they’re riding a dodgem, meaning the pair of you end up glaring out at the other diners. Some restaurateurs seem to think this layout is romantic, but it’s just a recipe for a cricked neck and tipping gravy into your companion’s crotch.
The Maine’s menu is riddled with New England flavours served in the international language of the soulless private members’ club. There are lobster rolls, clam chowder, chargrilled octopus and soft-shell crab with lime aïoli; oysters come numerous ways; and chicken paillard sits alongside the apparently now obligatory dover sole meuniere. The room filled up quickly with rubber-neckers checking every table lest Tom Cruise had popped in for some ceviche, but by 12.30pm much was already missing from the menu, while there seemed to be a near-compulsory tour of the building being visited on the diners between courses.
Lunch began with a complimentary warm, but not especially fresh, baguette with a whole bulb of rather bitter roast garlic and a plate of sliced, good-quality beef tomato with plenty of black pepper. We ordered two types of tacos from the hot starters menu: the aforementioned “crispy” fish and cauliflower in a tahini dressing that turned out to be a lot of rather tasteless beans and sweetcorn. These tacos are simply best avoided; no happiness can be found here.
The lobster roll was a forlorn-looking dry brioche filled not overly generously with lobster meat and lettuce, and came with inedible crisps . If I’m honest, by this stage my hopes for the rest of lunch were not high. Sometimes, you just get a feeling.
The staff are a heady mix of inexperienced, hyper-confident and assertive, doling out history lessons on the postcode, stopping you mid-order to suggest their own ideas on where you’re going wrong and, excitingly, setting tests throughout the meal to name the dishes you’ve enjoyed so far. Spoiler: not really any of them.
I ordered a slice of key lime pie, and somehow ended up with that soft baked cookie due to the ebulliently cheerful over-selling. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because the meringue on the pie was both sloppy and gritty. My companion and I shared its alternative: some warm dough in a bowl with a jug of extra pouring chocolate. “This is the best thing I’ve eaten since I got here,” I declared while mopping up the chocolate sauce that one of the waiters had insisted on pouring over it – and the table – before leaving, never to return. Without any booze, we left about £100 lighter and still hungry.
The Maine will be a roaring success, however, because it is ostentatious, starry, looks fabulous in photographs and the clientele who will keep it afloat aren’t really interested in eating. It’s so faux-posh that Nicky Haslam has probably already added it to his things that are common list. There are many, many people who will love it, but as Sartre wrote in No Exit: “Hell is other people”.