The Observer

Change of heart

When Fulham’s Princess of Wales pub woke up as Le Colombier, Will Buckley’s dad went into mourning, but his mum was delighted
Every pub drinker has their favourite ‘what have they done to my local?’ story, but it seems that those who live near the Fulham Road have the hardest cross to bear. There was a time when you could spend a leisurely day and night enjoying a swift half in each of the 36 pubs in the Fulham Road and bump into a pretty varied cross section of society. This endeavour was always best started from the Putney end to ensure you were relatively sober in the more violent pubs near Stamford Bridge and drunk as you neared South Kensington and found yourself in the company of failed artists.
To embark on such a jaunt today would be theme-bar hell, a distressing melange of Pitcher and Pianos and Rat and Parrots. The great pubs are long gone. The Black Bull, where Hickey, aka, the General, was entrapped by the police for planning spectacular feats of hooliganism, reinvented itself as an art gallery. The Queen’s Elm, a convenient refuge for those barred from the Chelsea Arts Club, was tarted up as a cocktail bar.
For a while, the latter was a favoured haunt. It was run by Sean Treacy, one of the few publicans to have written a pub- biography, A Smell of Broken Gems, which, in its way, is a little masterpiece: ‘Film director Joe Losey decided to use the Queen’s Elm and me in his award-winning film, The Servant. The pub played itself.’
My Dad, meanwhile, drank in the Princess of Wales, just round the corner. I had been through the sitting outside the pub drinking bitter lemon stage. I had been through the standing at the bar with a nervous pint in your hand and nodding whenever anyone spoke stage, and had decided it was time to bolt. So I travelled 50 yards.
The point is that, while I might cavil about what happened to the Queen’s Elm, my Dad had better cause for complaint when the Princess of Wales woke up one morning as a French restaurant - and anexpensive one.

For a man who instinctively ordered the second cheapest bottle of wine on the menu, it was effectively out of bounds.

Bad news for Dad, but good news for Mum. My Mum is not a pub person. She doesn’t care for beer or male camaraderie. If I’d suggested we spend a night in the Princess, she would’ve had a monumental bone to pick even agreeing. But a top-notch French restaurant was a different matter.

Change of heartLe Colombier is a very decent restaurant. The maitre d’ was welcoming without being solicitous. Mum’s fish soup came with enough gubbins to fill a tureen, let alone a bowl. When my small rilettes arrived toastless some delicious warm French bread instantiy appeared. And they sell Marlboro red cigarettes, a rarity these days.

No complaints either about the main courses, with Mum’s beef fillet and my rack of lamb cooked just so. Nor the wines, which were better than drinkable. Indeed, the pancakes, which were a bit doughy, were my only quibble. But what’s a bit of pancake between friends?
Then the bill came. While £55 per head is not unusual in central London these days, it’s steep for a restaurant that is not attempting anything extraordinary. Le Colombier is a straight-down-the-line sort of place, with a menu made up of all your French favourites. More brasserie than haute cuisine. A no-risk place where you know you will be served top-of-the-range comfort food.
Which I suspect is how their regulars like it. The restaurant was packed on Friday night, mostly with people who live locally.
A smart and prosperous clientele more than happy to pay over the odds if it guarantees the avoidance of anything going wrong. But when such people use such a place as their local, you can only conclude ‘well, there goes the neighbourhood’.

Le Colombier, 145 DovehouseStreet, London SW3 (020 7351 1155).Dinner for two, including service, £100.

Jay Rayner will be back in two weeks