The drugs don’t work | Review: Pharmacy 2, London


Does London really need a new Damien Hirst restaurant? Or indeed an old one?

Pharmacy 2

Pharmacy 2

Remember MC Tunes? Come on, you must remember MC Tunes… Moss Side rapper. 1990s. Dry Bar… Haçienda… Afflecks Palace. A Greggs version of Vanilla Ice. He had a hit with 808 State, which went: “I’m a Mancunian house jammer, rough and ready, but look good for the camera, now understand what you see is what you get, I’m 19 and classed in my own set.”

The most amazing thing about MC Tunes isn’t that, despite some very evident weathering, he really was only 19 when he released “The Only Rhyme That Bites”, but that he had a new album out last year. Admittedly, it was something recorded and shelved 25 summers back. But one can only wonder who thought there was any kind of market for Damage by Stereo. Why now?

You can see where I’m going with this.

What a time to be alive: we were all tits-deep in Cool Britannia and Gary Glitter had just been edited out of Spice World

Just as I rather enjoy listening to any amount of 12” remixes of “The Only Rhyme That Bites” when I’m in the mood (tipsy, nostalgic, ten minutes from tearful), I was rather looking forward to visiting Damien Hirst’s reopened Pharmacy restaurant in London. As we all know, the original in Notting Hill Gate was white-hot for about twenty minutes in 1998. What a time to be alive: we were all tits-deep in Cool Britannia and Gary Glitter had just been edited out of Spice World. And I loved going to Pharmacy back in the day. I don’t think I ever ate anything (I wasn’t doing much eating in the 1990s – no one was really into food), but I drank a lot. And the point of Pharmacy wasn’t its kitchen: it was the scene.

Pharmacy 2: "Less charm, more cutlery please”

Pharmacy 2: “Less charm, more cutlery please”

When I went to Pharmacy 2 last week, the opposite was true. It was two thirds empty at lunchtime, and the peoplewatching was poor. It’s on top of Damien Hirst’s new Newport Street Gallery, which is showing stuff that isn’t Hirst (John Hoyland, Jeff Koons) and therefore worth visiting. The building is very expensive, with meticulous attention to detail. And because nothing happens in West London anymore, and everyone from West London has moved east, it’s south of the river, ten minutes walk from Vauxhall Tube. It’s in an area that the Evening Standard is trying to call “Voho”. There must be some jobs worse than being forced to write trend pieces for the Evening Standard, but right now I can’t think of any.

Pharmacy 2 riffs on precisely the same imagery and props as the original, right down to the metallic pull-chart wallpaper. But this time around the food is the thing. The public now obsesses over food in the way they used to obsess over fashion, so a reboot of Hirst’s canteen in 2016 was never going to be beans and toast, even if it does play on some of the prosaic kitsch of British dining. Mark Hix has been drafted in to create a menu that’s big on comfort, but quirky enough to be interesting.

If the food is from 2016, and the décor is from the 1990s, the service is dialled in from the 1970s

Right now there’s some ambitiously priced new season asparagus (£14.50), alongside a few Hix signature dishes, including “Heaven and Earth” (black pudding on apple and onion mash – truly lush), some cod chitterlings and a prawn cocktail. There’s steak tartare, a duck curry and various bits and bobs from the grill. Just about everything my table of four ordered was somewhere between good and excellent. I asked to be talked through the “Fisherman’s Spelt”, and one of the several waitrons we had cause to roll our eyes at during the afternoon began by trying to explain to me what spelt was. Another classic Hix dish, this is great stuff – a wonderful paella-like concoction with scallops, mussels and squid, in a rich stock.

Pharmacy 2: Same wallpaper, different decade

Pharmacy 2: Same wallpaper, different decade

If the food is from 2016, and the décor is from the 1990s, the service is dialled in from the 1970s. Inept doesn’t begin to describe it. “Would you like water for the table?” we were asked, as we sat down. We would, we said. Nothing ever came. It was an hour before we saw any food at all. The dining room started at sparsely populated, and lost diners rapidly, yet our table seemed shrouded in some kind of invisibility cloak. One of my party went to find the manager and demand attention. The service became warmer, but managed to remain entirely rubbish –something of an achievement. Wine was opened, poured, and the bottle removed from the table to an ice bucket and forgotten about. Dishes repeatedly arrived without the necessary flatware with which to enjoy them.

“Less charm, more cutlery please.”

Hirst’s art these days is performance-based – turning the banal into piles of money

I feel the same way about Pharmacy 2 as I do about Hirst generally. It harks back to something that was so very of its time. It’s cynical. And it’s not for me. Hirst’s art these days is performance-based – turning the banal into piles of money. The jig, surely, is up. People buy spot paintings the way they used to buy Warhol silkscreens. Except those Warhols at least connected their investor with something intrinsically cool (even if Andy was way out of fashion in the years leading up to his death). But a Hirst? It’s just Keith Allen drunk and Alex James in a cloth cap. It’s all so… naff.

A few days after going to Pharmacy 2, I went to Sexy Fish. I’ve been meaning to go for ages. I was surprised how sophisticated, indeed beautiful, it looks. It, too, harks back to the 90s, but in an overblown Atlantic/Titanic kind of a way. Unlike Pharmacy 2, it feels of the moment in terms of the crowd – it hasn’t quite the Arabic knocking-shop air of Novikov, just down the street, but it’s still a rich tapestry of Mayfair louche and luxe. Like Pharmacy 2, I probably won’t ever return to Sexy Fish. But at least Sexy Fish looks like London in 2016, for better or worse. C


Pharmacy 2, Newport Street, London SE11 6AJ
020-3141 9333;