The Brass Rail Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1
Contact: 020 7318 3115; selfridges.com
Born in Selfridges in 1966, The Brass Rail celebrated an important birthday (you can do the maths because you read the Telegraph) last year. I was born in 1964 (though regrettably not in Selfridges) and I can’t remember a life pre-Rail. Indeed, it is conceivable I was weaned on a combination of Maison Bertaux cheese tarts plus salt beef and latkes from either The Brass Rail or Carroll’s in Great Windmill Street. (Which would explain a lot.)
At the latter, with my father, I would consume a “one on rye, with” (a salt beef sandwich on rye bread, with mustard) in a venue that felt film-set cool to me even as a kid: Carroll’s was lined with mirrors, red-leatherette-topped stools (perfect for spinning) and hundreds of black and white pictures of boxers mid-punch, while the clientele was old-skool Soho characterful. And the food…
At The Brass Rail, meanwhile, the punters (who were more St John’s Wood than Soho) included beautifully coiffed-and-gloved elderly ladies and be-hatted gents with ties. Eating sandwiches. Thusly I grew up, and life, inevitably, became more complex, disparu. As an only child, I evolved a series of solo-dining rituals to anchor myself in a Happy Place whenever family, relationships, jobs, homes and friendships came and went.
As an only child, I evolved a series of solo dining rituals to anchor myself in a Happy Place whenever family, relationships, jobs, homes and friendships came and went
These included Bertaux (at 12.30pm sharp, when the cheese tarts emerge from the oven); a duck-and-rice joint in Chinatown; an Indian restaurant (now closed) in Westbourne Grove; the fish and chip shop in Lisson Grove; the Italian ice-cream dealer in Chalk Farm; and a certain specific falafel vendor on the Edgware Road. Mostly (though not exclusively) these were places to which I’d been introduced by my father as a child and, invariably, by the end of a meal my chipped and cracked continuity would be restored. Emotionally recalibrated I’d once again be fit-for-purpose.
With Carroll’s long since closed, whenever the clocks go back (and for me, salt beef is strictly seasonal) at the first opportunity I head – alone, by choice – for The Brass Rail. It bothers me I didn’t know about TBR’s big anniversary because it follows that the whole of 2016 must have passed without me visiting. I could have sworn I was there last November and vividly remember discussing parenting tribulations with a delightful young couple at the adjacent table who did, indeed, seem to be weaning their baby on latkes.
However, if you aren’t familiar with Selfridges, you may not even know of The Brass Rail’s existence – a sad situation I am bound to rectify. It’s on the ground floor of the venerable store, adjacent to the Food Hall entrance in Orchard Street. It used to be a few metres away, around the corner, fenced off from the rest of the shop-proper (by the said rail).
You queued for meat cut swiftly and expertly to order (Jack Spratt-lean or Mrs Spratt-fatty, to taste) in front of you, by staff who had been there since I was a toddler (and who would smile and nod and just about stop themselves saying “My, haven’t you grown!” because you were now actually 18, 26, 34, 44, 52…); and then you collected your side-orders – pickles, coleslaw, latkes, potato salad, whatever – paid and, salivating the while, carried the spoils back to your table, made with the English mustard and proceeded to enter beef nirvana.
Conceptually straightforward, The Brass Rail never really needed a revamp; however, as it headed towards its big birthday inevitably somebody upstairs decided the beef was now “heritage” and the process of presenting it “artisanal”. It’s also open for breakfast and offers tricksy, novelty, New York-y type sandwiches and its own-blend coffee – all easy to ignore.
I found myself unspooling the thread between the middle-aged ex-Londoner version of me and the child for whom this was always a treat of great magnitude
Less easy to dismiss, however, was the wrong-headed decision to turn the process of ordering into standard table delivery (and offering modish lean cuts only). It’s a shame because for me this was the original fast food with instant gratification guaranteed, so ordering, paying and waiting for table service is (ahem) entirely counter-intuitive.
However, this would matter a great deal more were the food not as good as it has always been – which is to say, exemplary of its kind – though I miss a bit of fat. I never order a sandwich (this isn’t carb-loathing, just my preference), always a plate of beef and (on this occasion, having missed breakfast in pursuit of a train) the Full (albeit non-kosher) Eastern European: latkes, slaw, potato salad, gherkin. And a Coke. I’ve never found the appropriate alcoholic accompaniment to salt beef, though I’m willing to be persuaded there is one.
At The Brass Rail there are few of the minor stresses involved in eating out, not least because the melt-in-the-mouth meats are a known quantity that always, without exception, are absolutely yet unquantifiably correct.
So, yet again, I found myself happily unspooling the thread between the middle-aged ex-Londoner version of me and the child for whom this was always a treat of great magnitude. On this occasion, however, as I tried not to race through the beef, something suddenly occurred to me: something that might, after all these years, help me to unspool the umbilical emotional thread yet further and, indeed, make this time-honoured, semi-reverential experience even richer.
Yes: next time, I really must bring my sons.