LONDON — The opening of Damien Hirst’s restaurant, Pharmacy 2, in a windblown part of South London, recalls a very different launch party for the original Pharmacy on New Year’s Eve 1997.
That night entered London legend as one of the greatest parties of the decade.
Vanity Fair had just declared that London was swinging again in the era of “Cool Britannia.”
Oasis and Blur led the BritPop charge; Tracey Emin and Hirst were at the forefront of the Young British Artists (a group of art school grads so widely celebrated they were granted their own acronym—the YBAs) and centuries of fusty political leadership had been upended by a fresh-faced Tony Blair.
Hirst’s conceptual restaurant—tricked out like a drugstore with pills, conical flasks, and medical equipment—briefly became London’s hottest destination.
David Bowie, Kate Moss, Madonna, and Tom Cruise were on the guest list, while just about every media insider and art world guru passed through to marvel at the fellow diners and the original artworks during the restaurant’s spectacular opening months.
Newsweek was moved to name Hirst as one of today’s 10 most important artists. His diamond-studded skulls and animal carcasses preserved in formaldehyde transformed him into a global star.
When his restaurant was shut down six years after the glorious opening night, the obituaries declared the end of an era.
The buzz had faded, the clientele went stale, and the prime minister helped George W. Bush invade Iraq. Matthew Freud, a PR boss, former son-in-law of Rupert Murdoch and one of the founders of Pharmacy, explained that it wasn’t simply a zeitgeist issue. “What happened was it became a very, very shit restaurant,” he said at the time.
No one was expecting a sequel.
But then, on Tuesday, Pharmacy 2 threw open its doors.
It is notoriously difficult for a sequel to recapture the original magic, and unfortunately Damien Hirst is not about to become the London restaurant scene’s Godfather.
Pharmacy 2 is a glorified cafeteria.
Up a curved flight of stairs at Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in South London, the restaurant is a brightly lit re-creation of the original.
Bottles and boxes of medicine line the walls, terrifying surgical equipment is displayed on shelves, the barstools are fashioned into the shape of tablets, and a huge stained-glass strand of DNA winds its way across the room’s large windows.
The room is impressive, and the menu—crafted by star chef and former overlord of The Ivy, Mark Hix—conjures hopes of a meal to match.
Nestled amid simple but confident starters like “Heritage beets with walnuts and chickweed” is one named “Heaven and Earth” for £9.95 ($14)—a plate of soil and MDMA, perhaps? Nope, it’s a large ball of blood pudding perched on crushed potato and apple. Very nice, but hardly celestial—or, indeed, mind-altering.
Nice is a theme at Pharmacy 2. “De Beauvoir smoked salmon ‘HIX’ cure”—really nice, although expensive. “Dublin Bay prawns with Arak, wild garlic and fennel pilaf”—quite nice, although bland. “Swanson House Farm duck curry with apple pakora”—not nice enough.
The menu is also full of brunch favorites like eggs Benedict or American muffins, and a tempting selection of mini puddings—mostly classics like crème brûlée or chocolate mousse. Everything was… nice.
Served simply and elegantly, none of the dishes punched their weight. While the caramel on the crème brûlée cracked invitingly, the temperature of the custard varied from spoon to spoon.
The anticipated complexity of the duck curry was washed out by an overwhelming monotony of cumin. And the Dublin Bay prawns, which promised to balance sweetness and the anise aroma of Arak and fennel, faded away to nothing.
This restaurant is supposed to be a joint venture from the enfant terrible of the British art world and one of the London’s most celebrated chefs. “Nice” isn’t good enough—especially when a three-course meal for two with a bottle of wine comes in at over £100 ($140).
The middle-aged couple at the next table had the eggs and a glass of wine, and declared themselves very satisfied.
That is the way to view this restaurant. Not the latest big entry into the swaggering London restaurant scene, but somewhere to pop for a plate of eggs after an hour in the gallery.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise. While he continues to make millions selling mass-produced versions of his greatest hits, Hirst has long since lost the power to shock. It was more than 20 years ago when his “Mother and Child (Divided)”—the bisected remains of a cow and her calf—stunned audiences.
Surprisingly, Hix seems to have embraced the mediocrity. “Hopefully, it will be the best gallery café,” he told The Daily Beast during the restaurant’s first service to the public. “I want this to be an all-day café where in the afternoons you can come and have a coffee and a bread and butter pudding or you can come and have three courses and have expensive wines.”
Hix is happy to admit that is a very different proposition to the original Pharmacy, which opened in Notting Hill a year before Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts made the neighborhood world-famous.
He had no involvement in the first one, but has been friends with Hirst for years.
“I’m not big, brash, loud, and rowdy, but [Pharmacy] was because there wasn’t actually an awful lot around in London then—so it was quite easy to open up something with a bit of a statement,” he said.
The big statement made by Pharmacy 2 is more of a question—why bother?
Without the evocative name and the outlandish interior design, this gallery café would come across quite happily as a decent spot for brunch or a quick lunch for local office-workers.
But then you come to the next problem. It really is in the middle of nowhere—a brisk 10-minute walk from Vauxhall station, the $35 million gallery and restaurant is surrounded by blocks of run-down apartments and auto-repair shops hidden in the railway arches.
There is no doubt that this area is on the up and the new fortified U.S. Embassy will open nearby in 2017, but there is not going to be much in the way of passing trade over the next 12 months.
“The area it’s in—when you walk out in the streets in a minute—it’s like a desert out there, innit?” said Hix. “Shall we go under the arches where we might get mugged? Or shall we turn left and take the safe route?”
Hix and Hirst have taken the safe route and, unfortunately it’s all rather disappointing.