“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action”, Ian Fleming wrote in James Bond novel Goldfinger.
We found plenty of all three – especially the third – on a visit to Happenstance, on Ludgate Hill, opposite St Paul's Cathedral. And the restaurant, which boasts views of the London landmark and a modern European menu, may have happenstance but lacks happiness (at least for two paying customers).
This was not my choice – but that of a friend who wanted to take me out for my birthday, needing somewhere convenient to Tate Modern.
There are the promised Cathedral views from the bar area, but not from the main dining room. The three year old restaurant is noisy, although the tables are well spaced, there's canned music (not just in the loos) and what is called “industrial-chic” décor, that's visible pipework and cabling (probably non-operational) to the rest of us. Hard to see the point of that – it has no relevance to the area or its traditions.
Our waitress was pleasant but over-eager, asking us twice in the space of a couple of minutes for our order. But she did bring tap water without asking.
Glancing over the menu, it was difficult to see what was “Modern European” - it was largely chain-produced mish-mash (I discovered afterwards that Happenstance is part of a group and had featured in a widely reported racist incident back in March, for which the owners apologised).
Still, the wine starting at a decent £17.95 a bottle was good.
Now for the three acts of our lunch. For starters, I choose Crispy Squid, my fellow diner Chicken Satay (£6.50 and £6.25 respectively). The squid itself was rubbery, although the batter was fine while the lemon mayonnaise tasted of plain mayonnaise – there was a tiny sliver of lemon. The satay was a generous amount of chicken served in what could only be peanut butter.
My friend went for the Smoked Chicken, Avocado, Mango and Cashew Nut salad main course (£11.95). She pronounced this delicious – but complained that the serving was more starter than main course size.
I saw little to attract me so I went for the safety of rump steak (£17.95). Served with chips and a token sprig of watercress, it was what it said. I had the peppercorn sauce (£2.95) which appeared to be a load of peppercorns in a Bisto-style gravy. But enjoyable if pricey.
The dessert course was a disaster. My friend went for the Strawberry and Mint Pavlova (£5.95) which was good, although you could have found this in the frozen food section at your local supermarket.
I chose the chocolate and salted caramel tart (£5.95). It was inedible. You needed a chisel to break up the “pastry” base. We sent it back, and was offered a replacement. The manager explained that the base was “bought in”. That should not happen – and it's not an excuse.
The only other dish that appealed was the cheese board (£8.95). We made it clear that this had to be free of charge. It was generously portioned with biscuits and a decent chutney, even if the British cheeses were unidentified and all soft and white. What about Cheddar? Cheshire? Red Leicester? And what is “Modern European” about this cheese selection?
But, guess what? When the bill arrived, the cheese course had been added. There was an unseemly discussion and eventually, the charge was removed.
City types don't dine here. It's nearly all visitors. They are unlikely to return. And we won't.
1a Ludgate Hill London EC4M 7AA
Phone is high cost 0845 number – avoid
Nearest Stations City Thameslink, St Paul's