What the closure of Albert’s Table says about Croydon


By - Monday 30th October, 2017

Albert’s Table in South Croydon has suddenly closed – why?


I’ve been reviewing restaurants in the Croydon Citizen for a few years. I’ve always tried to be positive about independent Croydon(ish) venues, only giving MeatLiquor and Boxpark a bit of a kicking (which both can take on the chin pretty easily). However, there was another kicking that I’d been building up to since I started this gig: Albert’s Table, which is now, and seemingly without warning, no more. No announcement was made; the restaurant’s social media simply ceased operations. Trip Advisor records the annoyance of pre-booked customers, some of whom knew nothing about the closure until they turned up. It can’t help but leave a sour taste behind.

I found Albert’s Table an ongoing challenge. Anecdotally, a fair few of my fellow citizens had experienced meals there that weren’t quite up to scratch, or knew those who had. We are all, however, committed to the Citizen‘s view that if we didn’t have to be negative about Croydon, we wouldn’t be. Or, if we must criticise, that we would do so constructively. Croydon has received (and receives) a lot of flak; the Citizen is in part a response to the unfair anti-Croydon stereotype.

Now that the place is gone, however, I feel that the embargo can be lifted. It gives me no pleasure that the founders’ dreams have been crushed and a number of now ex-employees face economic uncertainty. This is a sad thing for all concerned, especially the poorly paid (more on this later) front-of-house and kitchen staff. And yet, and yet. I’m not surprised in the least. This is an oft-told tale in the restaurant business. Even the best can have bad luck. But Albert’s Table, despite a fairly good reputation, was not – in my view at least – all that it appeared to be. We just didn’t feel able to say so.

Don’t assume that you’re the best thing in town and that we should be grateful

Perhaps that was because we needed what it did for us just a bit too much. It put Croydon on the fine dining map of London. We were so happy to have something that looked and felt that way that we didn’t want to be seen to walk out of the party in a huff. I remain somewhat conflicted on this issue, especially as I’ve since left Croydon. It’s a classic cultural cringe. It shows that for all of the positivity around Silicon Croydon and crafty beer festivals, we’ve got a long way to go. 

The fact is that for such a restaurant to work and stay in business, not just outside the centre of town but outside the very rich suburbs with high population density (Chiswick, Wandsworth Common, Clapham Old Town and so on), both product and service have to be perfect every time. There are only so many birthdays and anniversaries that justify this sort of expense for the average local punter. Such a place needs repeat custom.

Unfortunately, I just never got the impression that Albert’s Table was truly committed to that kind of excellence – unlike, say, Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, or Trinity in Clapham. If you’re going to charge their prices, everything has to be perfect. There shouldn’t be a smug, slightly provincial assumption that you’re the best thing in town and that we should be grateful.

I went there twice, both some time ago. Initially, I was excited. Croydon had two fine dining restaurants cheek by jowl. I was a regular at Malcolm John’s Le Cassoulet on Selsdon Road, which cut no corners in its interpretation of French bourgeois cuisine in a luxe brasserie setting. I loved it, but it went the way of the dodo years ago, partly due to its prices and the inherent challenges of the post credit crunch economy. While it lasted, however, it was a jewel. Having something this good in Croydon made the journey to Chez Bruce seem just that little bit more hassle. And whilst its clientele may have been a little older than I, at least they weren’t a bunch of Sloane-y bankers playing drinking games with Pauillac.

This was a place which would tell you how to eat your beef

Albert’s Table was different. A far more British take on fine dining, it took itself very seriously indeed, with lots of talk about provenance. This was a place which was willing to tell its customers how to eat their beef. If you like well done, they said, choose the stew not the steak, which must be served med-rare at least – and whilst I might agree personally, that’s pretty ballsy.

And the food was fine. Standard Michelin-ambitious trad Brit, all cooked perfectly well… and with some significant ‘buts’. There was a lot of recycling. The same mashed root veg with starter and main course, for one. What tasted like a remarkably similar jus accompanied both beef and venison. The result was that I’d effectively ordered the same dish for starter and main, and there was no way to know this until my main turned up with braised dark meat protein under a dark sauce with the same root mash.

After the meal, I suggested to the manager that someone should have pointed this out. She apologised nicely enough – but then came the killer. When asked if tips went to the staff on top of wages or made up the minimum wage, she stammered, went red and said that they were lucky to have such good jobs. After that, she scarpered. I left unimpressed.

I got the strongest up-sell I’ve ever had anywhere

I went back after I’d read a few half decent reviews. By this time, Le Cassoulet was closed and I wanted to go somewhere nice with my mum. I felt that I should give the place another go. While the food was once again fine, and I avoided any of the slip-ups of the first go, I left just as angry. When it came to wine time, I got the strongest up-sell I’ve ever had anywhere, including in Mayfair w**kpits where no one is spending their own money – or at least if they are, they could buy the building. I asked, politely, whether the manager could explain to me in detail why the wine she had suggested was so particularly well suited to our meal.

Again, she stammered that I should choose what I wanted. I did, and ate a meal that was fine, but curiously old-fashioned. It was the sort of food that Gordon Ramsay got rich on twenty years ago and which has to be perfectly executed to be anything other than… well, ‘meh’.

So to conclude, Croydon’s brief era of fine dining has come to an end. Market forces were always going to make it a tough gig. But I do think, in part, that those in charge were the authors of their own destruction.

What worries me more is the empty spaces in Croydon’s Restaurant Quarter. Pizza Express (and its private equity ownership) took the view that footfall couldn’t justify a presence. Mirch Massala has relocated. Bianco couldn’t make it work. Are there any incentives that could be offered by the council to help regeneration?

Paddy Blewer

Paddy has lived in the Croydon / Sutton area since 1983 and in Waddon from 2001- 2015. A communications advisor in the City, he loves the variety of Croydon, particularly its options for eating and drinking and its great parks for the kids. A sports nut, supporting Munster, London Irish, Surrey CCC and Spurs, he has a sneaking regard for Palace, despite having a Millwall fan for a dad.

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  • Maria Vaughan

    Joby still has an account on LinkedIn
    https://www.linkedin.com/in/jobywells/

    • Paddy Blewer

      Hi Maria. This is interesting – I hadn’t seen this before I wrote, however now that I’m aware of his specific experience at both La Trompette and the Square, I feel more justified in my response to AT.

      He’s worked at truly outstanding restaurants that are totally committed to their offering to customers. He knows how this should be done.

      And yet I feel that corners were cut too often at AT for it to really make it – in fact I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did. I had a worse than average experience and post Cassoulet it was the only game in town.

      Did you go?

    • Anne Giles

      LinkedIn is not up to date. A former Met Police Sergeant who died a few yesrs’ ago is still on it!

  • Anne Giles

    We went there twice and loved the food, but it was far too expensive for us. We just haven’t got that sort of money

    • Patrick Blewer

      Hi Anne, im glad you enjoyed it. I’ve heard that a lot, which is a reason i didnt submit this before AT closed

      For me it’s about value for money. If I’m going to have a small amount of blow outs a year I want them to be brilliant.

      Alas I never found that to be the case

  • Cassie Whittell

    I ate at Albert’s Table 6 or 7 times over the last 5 years and had some truly memorable ‘special’ meals there (big birthdays, that sort of thing). I am honestly sad it’s gone; I never had the experience you describe in regards the food. I can’t comment on the staff payments or tipping policy, but the staff I spoke to seemed to love their jobs; all anecdotal now, of course. I hope anyone who’s lost their job with its closure is back in work soon.

    • Patrick Blewer

      Hi Cassie. I’m pleased you enjoyed it and I can imagine that when it clicked it was great.

      I agree it’s a shame both that Croydon doesn’t have a destination restaurant for birthdays etc (or whenever you want) and it’s particularly sad for the staff.

      My point was that for this sort of thing everyone has to feel like you. The restaurant industry runs on such precarious margins, they basically can’t ever afford to drop the ball. Add in the changing economic environment and food fashion and it was always a tough gig.

    • Edward Lim

      Our experience has been the same as yours. We have been there six or seven times in the past few years and were planning to visit again around New Year. Really saddened to find it closed and replaced by another restaurant of a different focus. Now we have to travel out of Croydon to find a similar restaurant.

  • Jeannegenius

    We used to go once or twice a year. Food was always delicious but service was often rather amateurish and the decor was very old fashioned. Was a pleasant place but emphasis has now switched from Restaurant Quarter with arrival of Boxpark and I guess people just don’t want this type of dining experience in Croydon anymore. Sad though – loved the Dorset crab tart!

    • Patrick Blewer

      Hi Jeanne. You have a point re boxpark but i think it’s wider than that.

      As you say, Boxpark is in a different part if Croydon and is a fundamentally different offering. Fashions change and perhaps Boxpark’s dirty / ethnic food / street food offering is more on poont for croydon at the moment.

      However I think that it’s targeting an overlapping but slightly separate market.

      There’s still a massive latent market within 30 mins of AT. Croydon / Couldson / Purley / Kenley / Wallington / Sutton / Cheam. The Kent equivalents.

      Put bluntly there should be enough £ there for a fine dining restaurant in far South London $ North Surrey / Kent that offers competition to the Michelin starred places further north in Clapham / Wandworth

      The trouble is, fine dining is a low margin / high risk venture, especially in the burbs. Therefore EVERYTHING has to be perfect.

      Add your “service was often rather amateurish and the decor was very old fashioned” to my points and it’s not surprising it closed.

      That doesn’t invalidate the product but does show why it’s so hard.

      Cheers

      Paddy

  • Graeme Park

    A nice read – and insight. I came here wanting to disagree, but left in complete agreement. My wife and I moved to the area a little over a year ago and made two trips to Albert’s Table – both times for the seasonal tasting menu and both times very enjoyable. We were both excited that we had such a restaurant on our doorstep and felt it bode well for the future of the area’s dining options. It is, however, telling that we didn’t visit more regularly. Indeed, if we are looking for fine dining we are far more likely to head into London-proper. Similarly, if we’re looking for street foods then we’re not going further than Boxpark – the Cronx brewery might have a lot to answer for there however!

    The area is certainly undergoing a transformation and is ripe for an incredible dining scene, but it has to be right one. Call it gentrification, but there seems to be a trend for the employed-in-London double-income-no-kids (DINKies) crowd moving to the area and purchasing property. I’m among them and with that in mind, perhaps Albert’s Table attempted to occupy the wrong space at the wrong time? It was unlikely to lure people from city centre fine dining and, as you’ve mentioned, perhaps there isn’t a heavy enough pre-existing local footfall.

    This gentrification is likely to continue as the number of trendy new housing developments come to fruition. I suspect more change is afoot and I think it’s likely some of Boxpark pop-ups, once established in that incubator will seek bricks and mortar premises in an area like the South Croydon restaurant quarter. Similarly, I’m hopeful for more entrepreneurial and adventurous dining in the area – a simple, well-priced place like paedella would surely be well received?

    I hope the area will grow and flourish as some of those DINKies become parents and then, perhaps a high-end local restaurant will do well in the area for those that don’t want to make the journey into town on a Saturday night – and their friends. For now, however, I think praise should be give to the places that already do it well. It’s hardly a barren landscape with Albert’s Table gone. For me, Little Bay, Cote d’Azure, Yumn and Osushi all hit the nail on the head in terms of value for money, service and a unique experience in the setting.

    Now.. and to take nothing away from Cafe Treasnor’s great lunch-time fillings and La Spazia’s fun atmosphere (both of which I love), if only we had a great independent brunch joint like Wandsworth’s Flotsam and Jetsam, we’d really be off to a great start to the day

  • Graeme Park

    Been trying to post this all day, but I keep getting marked as spam!
    That’s a great read and insight. I came here wanting to disagree, but left in complete agreement. My wife and I moved to the area a little over a year ago and made two trips to Albert’s Table and both times for the seasonal tasting menu and both times very enjoyable. We were both excited that we had such a restaurant on our doorstep and felt it bode well for the future of the area’s dining options. It is, however, telling that we didn’t visit more regularly. Indeed, if we are looking for fine dining we are far more likely to head into London-proper. Similarly, if we’re looking for street foods then we’re not going further than Boxpark but the Cronx brewery might have a lot to answer for there however!

    The area is certainly undergoing a transformation and is ripe for an incredible dining scene, but it has to be right one. Call it gentrification, but there seems to be a trend for the employed-in-London double-income-no-kids (DINKies) crowd moving to the area and purchasing property. I’m among them and with that in mind, perhaps Albert’s Table attempted to occupy the wrong space at the wrong time? It was unlikely to lure people from city centre fine dining and, as you’ve mentioned, perhaps there isn’t a heavy enough pre-existing local footfall.

    This gentrification is likely to continue as the number of trendy new housing developments come to fruition. I suspect more change is afoot and I think it’s likely some of Boxpark pop-ups, once established in that incubator will seek bricks and mortar premises in an area like the South Croydon restaurant quarter. Similarly, I’m hopeful for more entrepreneurial and adventurous dining in the area. A simple, well-priced place like paedella would surely be well received?

    I hope the area will grow and flourish as some of those DINKies become parents and then, perhaps a high-end local restaurant will do well in the area for those that don’t want to make the journey into town on a Saturday night. For now, however, I think praise should be give to the places that already do it well. It’s hardly a barren landscape with Albert’s Table gone. For me, Little Bay, Cote d’Azure, Yumn and Osushi all hit the nail on the head in terms of value for money, service and a unique experience in the setting.

    But, and to take nothing away from Cafe Treasnor’s great lunch-time fillings and La Spazia’s fun atmosphere (both of which I love), if only we had a great independent brunch joint like Wandsworth’s Flotsam and Jetsam, we’d really be off to a great start to the day

    • Paddy Blewer

      Hi Graeme

      I’d written a long reply that got killed as well!

      As a one time Croydonite DINK I agree with most of what you’re saying. I loved OSushi and and Little Bay is a great cheap eat option – although I knew the one in Farringdon before the one on my doorstep.

      You’re right there’s a load in Croydon and the wider burbs that should be celebrated and I’ve tried to do that in my reviews, as have my fellow Citizens. AT for me was something I’d never felt really fitted in – because of the conscious choice to be significantly more expensive than the places you mention but not quite being up to the necessary standards to justify the prices.

      I’m happy to admit that I’m not the target market for Boxpark, as I wrote in detail here (https://thecroydoncitizen.com/culture/boxpark-quickie-more-meaningful) but as an investor in Dinerarma I absolutely understand the concept and the attraction of multiple streetfood vendors and good drinks in an easily accessible area. I just happen to not quite buy into the Croydon version. Apart from the Cronx brewery bar, which I love because I would drink Kotchin until the cows come home.

      Weekend brunch is very much for DINKies (you lucky b’stard).

      Out of interest, what did you want to disagree with?

      Cheers and happy eating and drinking

      Paddy

      • Graeme Park

        Oh nothing in particular! I was just knee-jerking off about the demise another venue in socro. Hopefully it’s the start of a turning tide, though!

      • Catherine Pestano

        Yes Little Bay is our hidden gem I think. And so kitch pretty, fun with music but also great on a normal day.

  • Jeannegenius

    Hi Paddy,
    I must say I am enjoying this discussion!
    I just checked and Albert’s Table opened in 2008 and I think things have changed a lot over the past nine years. There is still a demand for the fine dining that AT offered but mainly among an older age group (of which I am a member!). However there is a reluctance among this age group to come into Central Croydon these days. Again I would emphasise that the food at AT was always great but its concept and presentation perhaps needed an update – maybe Joby will return some time soon!
    Boxpark is not really my scene but it is a positive addition to Croydon and is vibrant and interesting.
    With my grown up children who have now moved further in to South East London, we love places like Artusi and Pedlar in Peckham or the superb Indian restaurant, Babur in Brockley. These places have a great atmosphere and wonderful food and are a bit more relaxed.
    This type of restaurant will eventually come to Croydon. Already lunchtime cafés like Crushed Bean and Smooth Bean provide delicious imaginative food and looking around there are lots of people moving in who will want imaginative restaurants for a delicious dinner experience.
    As a postscript I am puzzled as to why we don’t yet have a Côte or a Belgo? Also don’t forget Brasserie Vacherin which has a nice atmosphere and great food.

    • Patrick Blewer

      Hi Jean

      Love a good chat about food and drink.

      Of course things have changed since AT opened. An economic crash and recession, the Croydon riots and years of uncertainty haven’t been great for the AT sort of offering.also fashions move on and I don’t think AT moved with them.

      I’ve spent a lot of time in Malcolm John’s places in Croydon and Sutton. I wrote this about Brasserie Vacherin a few years ago; although I think there deliberately dropped the level from the original F&G days I’ve always loved what they do.
      https://paddyblewer.wordpress.com/2014/04/05/brasserie-vachein-croydon/

      I’d question your point about fine dining being the preserve of certain age groups. The boroughs of Bromley, Croydon and Sutton have a lot of youngish v well paid City workers who like food and spend their wages in places that might be considered “fine dining”. Add them to the local middle aged to older clientele who also want a bit of quality and I remain of the belief that the area could support somewhere if they got everything right.

      However as AT showed that’s a tough gig

      Happy eating

      Paddy

  • Tim Featherstone-Griffin

    Interesting discussion – I came across it, randomly googling to see if there was more news, having seen that AT suddenly seemed to have gone out of business. We’ve eaten at AT probably 10 times since the original Jay Rayner review drew it to our attention – and were also big fans of Le Cassoulet, less so of the other MJ offerings in Sutton / Croydon. I recognise the comments about amateurishness in the service – whilst the food was always better than anywhere else locally, the waiting staff often felt like they were a work in progress. I remember talking to the excellent head waitress at Le Cassoulet (when they invited us back for a free meal after a very poor experience) about the challenges that both MJ’s places found in finding decent staff locally.

    I will miss it, Really hope someone decides that the area needs a restaurant for gastronomy fans again…

    • Patrick Blewer

      Hi Tim

      The excellent HW at Cassoulet went to become Maitresse D’ at Fish & Grill as was, before they slashed costs and the place fundamentally changed, not necessarily for the better.

      As mentioned the food at AT wasn’t necessarily the issue for me, but the wider experience made me more picky that I might have been had it all worked like a swiss watch.

      This is why I was more generous to Fish and Grill than others. My wife and I spent a lot of time there when we were first going out and we were very well looked after. Also when it first opened it was that rarest of restaurants; it was better than it had to be at its price point.

      There are so many fundamental challenges as to gastronomic / fine dining model in Croydon, as I tried to point out in the original article. Given the not fantastic economic predictions for the future, I remain pretty bearish on a phoenix being born of the flames

      • Tim Featherstone-Griffin

        Sadly, your view is much as mine :-( SoCro has been so good for us (Carshalton) over the last decade or so, but I still have children… I will miss decent food a 10 minute cab ride away, with minimised babysitting costs!

        • Patrick Blewer

          Have you been to vinotecca by Carshalton Beeches? Top Italian, better for me than anywhere in SoCro. I’m Also a long standing fan of the Sun in carshalton. Very good pub food, good wine list too. Lovely management.

          • Tim Featherstone-Griffin

            I’ve never been that impressed with it to be honest – I live just round the corner from it. Always seemed to me to be rather 70′s formulaic Italian, with nothing particularly impressive happening in the kitchen. Perhaps I’m too harsh, I know others locally who sing its praises. Opening up a deli next door at the moment, which seems a brave step in current economic conditions, but can’t say I’m disappointed. Have been a fan of the Sun ever since the refurb – have had some really exceptional food there, at gastropub prices – just sometimes you want something a bit quieter and more dinner a deux than what is quite a buzzy pub at dinnertime (and often a bit too quiet at lunch). Other local tips welcome! There used to be a very nice place in Tadworth, but not sure if it’s there any longer… beyond that, it’s back to City / West End for decent food (or Wimbledon / Wandsworth anyway…)

  • Catherine Pestano

    went once and the lack of ambience and refusal to play music so we could have a refined atmosphere (ie hear the shouting and clattering from the kitchen) put us right off. Like eating in a railway waiting room. Unreceptive to feedback. We need a Balham Lamberts in Croydon. Now that is class, tailored with nothing too much trouble. Dine like a Duke for half the price of AT.