Review: Byron, 11 Haymarket

11 Haymarket - the Bermuda Triangle of restaurants

There’s something strange about 11 Haymarket. It’s on the doorstep of two theatres. It’s near Leicester Square, near Piccadilly Circus, near Trafalgar Square, and round the corner from the back entrance of the National Portrait Gallery. It’s not short of footfall, you’d have thought. But if the site were a ship, you’d say there was a Jonah on board.

The past 5 years have seen off:
Australasian restaurant. Nice food, I remember. Failed. Owners tried again, and decided that the location was more suited to…
Broadway Diner. But no. Failed again (Sam Beckett would be proud). Sold up.
Vaguely Moroccan/mediterranean food – a front bar with tapas, and a proper restaurant. Moderately stylish, though a bit dark. Failed.
Electric Birdcage.
An “extravagant yet eccentric nightspot”, with “an imposing carousel bar” featuring giant stallions. I remember there were bouncers. Ha! Whose name isn’t on the list now, huh?
(Along the way there were also JetLounge and Cafe Flo, apparently, though I’d have to admit they didn’t press on my consciousness particularly.)

That’s a bizarrely impressive casualty list.  Commercial property in Haymarket in general has had its problems – the site now housing Planet Hollywood was Quod before that, but not without a substantial vacant period; there is a blank-faced site a little further up the street that has been unlet for most of the decade I’ve been working in the area.  And it’s a strange street – when traffic is clear, drivers pound down it as if allowed to touch the accelerator for the first time in many frustrated hours, propelled by the downward slope.  When traffic is bad, which it often is following the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square, the place becomes a mobile carpark.  So, not the most tranquil of places.  It’s near everything, yes, but in itself lacks any identity or charm. Its passing trade is a mixture of lost tourists (“where is Lyesester?”  “Is this Soho?”) and hurried theatregoers at night; lost tourists and impatient office workers during the day.

So it’s instructive to look at what has weathered the car fumes.  First, the moderately well heeled chains like Pizza Express and Prezzo.  Second, the quick lunches like Pret a Manger and Yo Sushi.  Third, the havens for tired feet like Caffe Nero.  Fourth, gift shops specialising in London tat.  Fifth, themed places like the Sports Bar and, latterly, Planet Hollywood.  (Let’s make a pact, and agree not to talk about Tiger Tiger.)  I know, sounds classy, doesn’t it?  But then there’s the Haymarket Hotel, the chi chi boutiquey hotel that took a punt in settling down in these surroundings, and whose stylish bar and restaurant (Brumus) is busier than most other hotel offerings – it’s more like The Charlotte Street Hotel than anything else in the area.  So it’s not immediately obvious what will work in this benighted location.

Montage: "show a lot of things happening at once, remind everyone of what's going on" as the great Trey Parker said

But if you distil some common factors, you get Byron.  No really, you do.  Byron is a well-heeled hamburger chain, and this ‘Byron London’ branch was the 14th of the chain when it opened recently.  It has a simple traditional menu that is easily understandable by non-native speakers, with “proper hamburgers”, salads and knickerbocker glory.  It does this simple food very well, with good quality ingredients, and serves it quickly – you won’t find a foodie review that isn’t positive, though not all are as fulsome as Giles Coren who says they serve the best hamburger he’s ever had. It’s low-fi stylish, with a bit of humour in the details (wine is labelled ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘great’ and ‘best’), and a gentle London theme. For the Haymarket Hotel hipsters, it serves unusually good bottled beer.  And to pull people in from the street, they’ve opened up the ceiling and the windows to make it far lighter and more welcoming.  In their bid to be sophisticated, every previous inhabitant focused on the grandeur of the building and kept everyone in the gloom, shading the side windows.  I might regret saying this, but it feels as if someone has done their homework on the site for the first time.

And leaving aside the cold retail economics, did we like it?  Yes, we did.  You’ve all been to Ultimate Burger, Brilliant and Lovely Burger and so on, but I enjoyed this more.  Four of us piled in after seeing Flare Path at the Haymarket Theatre, at 10.30pm, keen to chat and eat but not for too long.  It was perfect – I had a skinny burger (no bun), girlfriend had Cobb salad, the two boys had the works.  The chargrill was just right, coleslaw and chips were good.  We sat at a proper table and had a proper conversation; there was a loud cackling group in a booth behind us eating ice cream, but the high ceiling made it bearable.

So, for those of you coming to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with us, our post-theatre plan is to settle into three of Byron’s booths approximately 2 minutes after the applause.  Since there are 17 of us (17! you crazy kids!), we’ve notified the management that they may need to get a few more posh beers in.

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