The writer Aesop, praised by Sophocles, loved by Socrates, admired by Aristotle, has been made into a cocktail. Or at least, the Aesop’s Fable cocktail — pink, natch — is one of the greasy It-cocktails on offer at The Fable, a new fairytale- themed restaurant under an unfairytale-like dirty tramp bridge next to a thundering A road in Holborn.
The Fable is three sprawling floors of dead plants and grunting beer breath, and the least whimsical vibe since Beast threw Disney’s first out-and-out jerk, Gaston, off the castle walls in Beauty and the Beast. It is the opposite of magic, unless you count the goblins at the bar and the troll at the door with his earpiece.
I came because someone told me about a place that was based on fairytales and I thought, what a fantastic new way to reel in the gays. Only the people who have made The Fable seem to have mistaken “fairytales” for “utter tat”, filling the space with caves made of dead books and repurposed postboxes, bizarre displays of business cards and hot water bottles, suppurating flowers and a vintage typewriter that comes with its own encomium (“expect to be entranced and enthralled”). Seriously, I have never seen a restaurant try so hard to recreate crusty fleamarkets and pond slime. There are weeds everywhere, tendrils of oregano (wuh?) spooling out of a small plastic pot on our table, next to a tile that says, flatteringly, 902. But honestly: only 902? There are surely thousands of tables here, spread out among the plants that line the huge windows, along with bits of broken conservatory and anything else you might find in Cecily Cardew’s underwear drawer.
‘Nothing here suggests anyone remotely cares or even likes you, from the offensive ear-bleed music to the desperate waitresses and the dead plants’
The Fable is not so much a restaurant as a noisy and charmless Alan Titchmarsh-themed sex barn, where the tables seem deliberately arranged to form a viewing gallery overlooking a central groping arena. A Spanish waitress leads us into the middle of this space, whereupon I ask, “Is this the restaurant?”, which is the culinary equivalent of asking “is it in yet?”, and she says: “Jes.”
Only this isn’t a restaurant. I’m not sure it’s even a bar, more a noisy and cheap pulling pit for junior internet executives run by a company geared entirely to men and drinking, where the only thing that the (surely deaf) waitresses seem to have been told to do is push artisanal beers (£5) and themed cocktails (£7) (a Porn Star martini, suggested by our waitress, follows me around all night). It’s a Walkabout bar with flowers and twiddly bits of the Nutcracker and someone’s else’s rubbish poetry typed to the 190 decibel strains of All Night Long. It is basically Russell Brand.
Table 902 is squished up next to a huge glass window. Everything on the table seems already to have died: there’s a dead candle and a large dead plant that smells of cough medicine and cat pee. The music is so offensively loud that everyone has to shout, including the waitress, who spends most of the evening mouthing: “I’m sorry?” The menu, presented on a tatty A3 sheet of paper stained to look like parchment, has at least tried to invoke the true spirit of fairytales, in the sense that there’s a wide range of burnt bits and sickly treats and sweets only the broken, bewildered and starving children of Hansel and Gretel would eat. The waitress, who so reeks of fags that we think we can taste the actual brand (Camel Lights), brings us the special cocktail menu, which offers the Aesop’s Fable (there’s also a “Prince Charming”: “receive the kiss of life with spiced rum”). The odd thing is, the Aesop’s Fable doesn’t even sound nice on the page, a palate-tasering mixture of gin, grand marnier, crème de cassis, juniper, cherry bitters and raspberries.
I order it anyway: goodbye magic, goodbye dreams, goodbye hope and mirth and whimsy, goodbye miracles, goodbye joy. As the tragedians say: don’t touch the aperitif. Starters are prawn lollipops, a bowl of tempura crispy squid, and a goat’s cheese and pesto bruschetta. The bruschetta is a charred orthopaedic clog concealing a piece of pond slime that sticks in my teeth. The tempura squid is less tempura, more something that’s been rolled around the inside of a Dyson and chucked into a pan. The prawn lollipops are better, but so meaty and large that they have to be eaten in bursts. Overall, the food is chaotic, weird and slightly menacing. Even All Bar One wouldn’t serve this stuff.
After more shouting, the waitress brings the mains, including skate wings and a dish called “reef, beef and bubbles”, a queefy plate of meaty flatulence that is part of a special £15 offer. Because you cannot offer decent steak and lobster for this little, the steak (delicious) is no more than the size of a playing card, and the tiny lobster has been baked back to the age of the dinosaurs, arriving green and with a pot of curdled béarnaise.
I don’t even know how to describe the skate wings, which came with new potatoes that bizarrely taste of sugar and a dirty black sauce that looked the very opposite of vierge, but let’s just say we couldn’t work out if the smell of BO came from one of the waitresses or the fish. The worst thing about the food, however, was not the general sloppiness or bizarre portions, the lack of care, invention or flavour, but the fact that it wasn’t even excitingly awful. This was food as wallpaper, tasteless clods of fish and meat.
Even the dishes that were meant to be overpowering (the firecracker sauce, for example) slipped by like the Styx, sub-pub-grub that has been so decided by numbers (the company that own The Fable will open eight more bars like this before mid-2015) that they have forgotten that good food is not simply a matter of endless weird business tie-ins but actually giving a damn.
Nothing here suggests anyone remotely cares or even likes you, from the offensive ear-bleed music to the desperate waitresses and the dead plants. We have our puddings outside, where it is at least quieter, and there’s only one cheesy drunk in a puffa jacket, who harasses us for a bit, offering one of the restaurant’s purple granny blankets (not the sexiest of pick-ups). Pudding is blackberry and apple crumble and a trio of mini pudding shots. The shots include tooth-exploding honeycomb chocolate and crème brûlée that is 70% ear wax. The mint tea comes in a sweet iron pot. The other thing we liked were taps in the bathroom. But that’s pretty much it: we liked the taps.
AA Gill is away
The Fable; 52 Holborn Viaduct, London EC1A 2FD; thefablebar.co.uk; 0845 468 0105; Mon-Weds: 7am-late; Thur and Fri: 7am-1am; Sat: 9am-1am; Sun: 9am-6pm
Three of the best after-work restaurants
Il Pirata, Belfast
A modish, casual Italian with plain wooden tables, stripped back surroundings and excellent sharing plates
279 Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast BT4 3JF. 028 9067 3421; ilpiratabelfast.com
Cafe Gandolfi, Glasgow
A Glasgow landmark for over 30 years, artists and musicians use the space regularly and it’s always buzzing after work
64 Albion Street, Glasgow, Scotland, G1 1NY; 0141 552 6813; cafegandolfi.com
Serves tapas dishes inspired by the owners’ lengthy gastronomy tour of Spain and offers an extensive drinks menu
7 Cotham Hill, Bristol BS6 6LD; 0117 329 6887; bravas.co.uk