A hack from a national newspaper recently lured me to lunch at his brand new HQ. All was not well within its wavy, gleaming glass walls. Apparently the canteen was in critical condition. An imported catering company ‘barely able to cope with the numbers’ was making meals a misery. I dutifully cancelled Claridges and made my way to the temple to type…
Designed by Dixon Jones, architect behind Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House, it looks far too trendy for the nether regions of still seedy King’s Cross. The first thing I noticed was a line-up of letters on coloured sticks facing the pavement. If you move about they fall into place, spelling ‘The Guardian’. Apparently a night-shifter naughtily rearranged these to spell ‘The Grauniad’, Private Eye’s nickname for a paper once so riddled with unintentionally amusing typos that it allegedly misspelt its own masthead.
It is a magnificent space overall, fluid and glossy like an ambitious advertising agency, although certain design details are easily derided. There are the day-glow ‘think pods’ with their Big Brother chairs, and an interview room with a disconcerting poster of Al Pacino projecting his trademark, vacant look. In the ‘break-out’ areas the passionate are expected to gesticulate. They can lie down in the ‘crash-out’ areas afterwards. And should staff wish to demonstrate their love for Mother Earth, they can make a date with the papier-mâché ‘pledge tree’, carpet-planted and shaped from yesterday’s news. Gazing at its ‘leaves’, inscribed with eco-friendly intentions, I must admit that I sense my appetite slide away. Nearby an antique printing press is marooned, like a model of a mower on Astroturf. It is all distractingly playful.
A sense of enforced casualness continues into the canteen. We find a seat along a banquette swathed in Paul Smith stripes (which clashed with my shirt). Huge diffusing lampshades hover Christine Keeler chairs. Tables are low, the temperature high. Whilst the long corridor feels like an airport lounge, it is not planes that soar by, but occasional weary ‘putt-putting’ barges along a surprisingly idyllic canal.
A nutritionally intolerant individual masterminds the menu. It dangled, artfully, from a bulldog clip. It is the only printed item in the building which dares to shun The Guardian’s font. We queue to collect chorizo, pinto bean, coriander, potato and onion broth which, it advises in red is ‘wheat, dairy and gluten free’, then lamb tagine with prunes and almonds served with lemon, chilli and coriander couscous: ‘dairy, wheat and gluten free’. It also describes itself as vegan. A curious slip for a building bulging with proof-readers…
The soup has a sweaty sheen and a sticky texture. The processed, rudely pink chorizo had lost its spice long ago. Perhaps it is a cliché to say it, but I have seen better-looking sick. It was served with a stale sponge of focaccia which bores an uncanny resemblance to loft insulation.
The wine that, a few years back, used to be available at Farringdon Road, is now a distant memory. All that is left is a ‘hydrotap’ supplying free-flowing rainwater harvested from the roof.
Prunes are not high on my list of ideal ingredients, particularly outside breakfast time. I actually find it quite a complex task to excavate any amidst 15 or so of the grimmest infant carrots I have ever seen. The withered witch’s fingers are simultaneously cooked yet undercooked, stiff yet bendable and arrestingly repellent.
The ‘free from’ couscous is acrid, like Cif and the ‘vegan’ lamb arid. I would rather munch straw. The whole jumble is mercifully camouflaged by a powerful yet anonymous blend of spices.
Pudding is tolerable, thank goodness: a decent British crumble. This is a dish so retro that it is post-modern. The price of the fibrous forced rhubarb with golden, gummy custard is also classic (£1). The hack senses we have accomplished something. ‘Not many people make it this far you know – only the older journalists and ex-public school.’
Two silvery-haired veterans sit opposite: Jonathan Steele, roving foreign correspondent, and Duncan Campbell, crime writer and senior correspondent. Exasperatingly they disprove the pudding theory, crunching through apples which they probably brought in anyway.
As we escape, turning the corner towards the rotunda atrium, there is a lengthy line of people patiently waiting for one of three microwaves to ping free. This microwave meltdown is an indicting sight – people bringing in their own leftovers from home. Another microwave is on order to cope with demand.
Aside from the meal’s final, grudging concession to British cuisine, the food is oddly ambitious yet fatally unmotivating. It makes airline food look glamorous. By being deliberately unpalatable, people are being prevented from loitering and forced back to their desks. A wretched irony considering that the papers produced within this otherwise extravagant building are without doubt the most food focused…