St. Stephen's Hall, Palace of Westminster, London, UK

Dismal plate of the nation

Lisa Hilton finds a disturbing metaphor in the unconvincing dining room of the House of Lords

Eating Out

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If ever a restaurant needed a therapist, it’s the Barry Room. Never have I eaten anywhere so painfully lacking in self-esteem, so hand-wringingly incapable of making eye contact, so desperate not to draw attention to itself.

Which is odd, because the Barry Room is the upscale dining room at the House of Lords. Whatever I was expecting as I was escorted through the magniloquent Pugin camp-fest of St Stephen’s Hall it wasn’t the gastronomic equivalent of Fanny Price.

The restaurant is reached via a crooked, corporation-carpeted staircase which absolutely doesn’t resemble a thrilling secret passage which might exclude people who didn’t know it was there; once attained the room could be very pretty, the plain stone walls a restful contrast to the hyperchromatic pageantry sprawled all over the rest of the interiors. Aside from the ugly screens informing diners of activity in the chambers and the rebarbative shrilling of the voting bells, it could really be quite soothing if only it were less apologetic.

A poor photograph of the Barry Room (this is the only one we could find!)

Faux-leather menu covers set a reassuring tone. Obviously when public money and an unelected chamber combine, the food at the Barry has to be slightly awful, but what if awfulness is elitist too? Shrivelled lamb cutlets and dry bread and butter pudding might make the Etonians feel at home, so maybe it needs to go a bit more modern Mediterranean because we’re all cosmopolitan tapas lovers who are down with small plates? But then that could shout metropolitan elitist because Tony and Gordon have still never been forgiven for Granita. And what about vegetarians — tofu-eating wokerati? Maybe curry then, everyone loves a curry but appropriation and oh please will you just stop looking at me like that!

How can the poor Barry possibly know what it’s supposed to be when every plate the kitchen sends out is fraught with political signifiers? How can a single menu attempt to map a nation without offending somebody? It needs to be accessible and reasonably priced with a nod to tradition whilst simultaneously pleasing a majority customer base of elderly gentlemen.

How can the poor Barry possibly know what it’s supposed to be when every plate the kitchen sends out is fraught with political signifiers?

Ingredients need to be meticulously costed yet just luxey enough to satisfy the ‘lifers”, who are mostly used to more plutocratic offerings (the hereditaries can’t even think of dining; if they stop bustling between committees for a moment someone might notice they’re still here.) Given the challenge, the Barry is not that bad. A crab and prawn cocktail in a tomato jus had been gussied up with a few self-conscious truffle shavings and aggressive chips of shallot, the taste somewhere between alium and fridge, without any particular conviction either way.

Main courses of calves’ liver with dauphinoise potatoes and a sirloin steak were no worse than average banqueting fayre, but the chef had (timidly) pulled out the stops on the puddings.

If you asked someone who was a toddler when Winston Churchill first became prime minister for a list of delicious treats and chucked them all in a bowl you might just come up with mince pie ice cream on a base of meringue with fourteen black cherries, chocolate sauce and silver balls (actually I’m lying about the silver balls but you could tell that they were there in spirit).

The cherries were of the rare, tinned-eyeball variety, truly impressive to source nowadays, and showed you what the Barry could do if only it had the courage to believe in its dreams.

“Prohibitively expensive without a proportionate increase in quality” was one disgruntled peer’s verdict on recent changes to the poor Barry Room, which must have been mortified to find itself mentioned as part of a minor scandal last June when the press jumped gleefully on reports that their lordships considered the grub sub-par. Despite receiving more than a million pounds in taxpayer subsidies since 2019, the Barry’s omelettes were deemed monotonous and its white wines inferior.

As a metaphor for the state of the nation the Barry Room couldn’t be more interesting

The omelette had been taken off in disgrace but nothing on the short wine list looked notably unpleasant; a predictable Chateauneuf, a fairish Rioja, no bottle marked up to more than £60, which I believe is equivalent to not quite a sixth of a peer’s per diem. Service was impeccable if your thing is having your dinner dished out by extras from Downton Abbey — the number of “very good, your Lordships” exceeded even the black cherry count.

Perhaps it’s unfair to review what is effectively a works canteen as though it were a business, but as a metaphor for the state of the nation the Barry Room couldn’t be more interesting. It has no idea what it is doing or who it is doing it for, it is uncertain, anxious, unconvincing and terribly insecure, but caught in the right light, there’s still a steely glint off the cutlery. Timorous, tongue-tied Fanny Price, readers will remember, wins through ruthless modesty in the end.

Laugh all you like at the designated mobility scooter parking space, sneer at the timid requests for something other than smoked salmon in the luncheon sandwiches, but the Barry is biding its time. It may yet know glory again.

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