I walk up and down Westbourne Grove five days a week, on my way to and from work. In the morning, my pace is brisker than I’d like, to make up for one or two alarm snoozes too many; evening strolls, on the other hand, are one of the parts of the day I prefer. As I walk back towards Portobello Road, I savour every breath of fresh air, and take time to notice my surroundings: the neat rows of high-end boutiques on both sides of the road have become so familiar, I could name most of them without looking.
Some of them have small cafes inside; I’m ready to bet they too are fashion statements, rather than spaces for coffee and food lovers (“Let’s have lunch at the Jigsaw store”, said no one ever). Then there’s Daylesford. It looks no less slick and polished than the nearby shops with food and drink appendages, but it’s actually a cafe. And a restaurant. And a homeware store. And an organic supermarket, selling produce from the Daylesford organic farms in the Cotswolds.
The cafe seems popular. Sure enough, it has many regulars. The one I notice most often is a portly middle-aged man, with unkempt greyish hair à la “Dude” Lebowski. When he’s there, he sits outside, typing on his Mac, come sunshine or pouring rain. Novelist? Freelance journalist? Remote worker? I’ve come to think that whatever he’s writing must matter less to him than the act of writing it there; the distraction of watching others go by, the thrill of being watched.
Funnily enough, I rarely see people shop at Daylesford. As in, stop by the grocery store after work. Pack a basket with a week’s worth of meat, fish and vegetables. You know, the stuff many of us have to fit between work shifts, long commutes and school runs. Still, I’m sure the supermarket has a loyal customer base; a group I picture as a lucky few, who can afford to run errands earlier in the day, rather than Average Joes with 9-to-6 jobs.
Laudable as it may be, Daylesford’s mission to bring fresh, seasonal produce from farm to Big City has the marks of status symbol all over it. However, in a strangely refreshing way, there’s no pretence that a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle is anything but a privilege for those who can afford it. Are you surprised to learn they have another branch in Belgravia? Don’t be.
Daylesford’s interiors would fare well in a magazine photoshoot. There’s taste in the simple wooden furniture, plenty of space for the store’s many facets to live together. Still, I can’t get myself to find it comfortable; it looks staged, aseptic, like the boutiques next door. And just like the day I walked into one of those, and felt a shop assistant watch my every move in the empty room, my first visit to Daylesford made me feel cumbersome, ill at ease – the proverbial elephant in a china shop.
All began with the staff’s reaction at the sight of me and my friend sitting down with our cups of coffee. It was six on a wet weekday evening – three hours before closing time – and we were the only customers. No one had cared to explain that we were meant to just take our styrofoam cups and bugger off, so we did as anyone in their right mind would have: we stayed in, to avoid getting rained on. A waitress immediately came to ask us to leave, without saying why. We were baffled: we hadn’t ordered takeaway, and the person who served us hadn’t asked if we were staying in. Had there been any extra eat-in charges, they could simply have told us, and we’d simply have paid. With no one but us in there (us, and a whole floor of empty tables), we were hardly in anyone’s way. She must have realised it too, as she eventually let us keep our seats. It didn’t feel like a wow moment, or a display of friendly service. It felt like an act of clemency, and to date, I’m still not sure what we were guilty of.
The cappuccino I had that evening was bland, unremarkable. I had higher hopes, given Daylesford’s focus on ingredients. Perhaps I should have ordered some food; my friend got a slice of cake, and sang me its praises. It came as no surprise: ever since I started working on Westbourne Grove, no weekday goes without me eyeing Daylesford’s beautiful pastries from the outside.
With all the buzz around the quality of the food, I thought the restaurant deserved a chance too. Visiting for lunch was an entirely different experience. It being a Monday, I thought I’d find the restaurant conveniently uncrowded; much to my surprise, it was packed – and none of the people in there looked like an office worker on their lunch break. There they were, again: the privilege of not having to watch your clock or your purse too often, that sense of entitlement that’s so easy to recognise from the other side of the fence.
My lunch companion chose a salad. It looked inviting (as did the option of mixing three different types of salad into one plate), but not worth its £12.50. I repeat: twelve pounds fifty for a salad. I ordered a roasted cod main, and found its price more reasonable: although £16 is outside my usual lunch budget, I know places that charge far more for fish dishes that size and quality. We’re talking fresh, tender fish combined with well roasted potatoes, peas, and a squeeze of zesty lemon and herb mayo; I enjoyed it from the first bite to the last.
I left Daylesford feeling well fed, and happy to have spent my break in a different way than usual: eating lunch out often means settling for ready meals, or overindulging with fast food, and I’m no fan of either. Saying that, I haven’t returned since: as far as healthier eating goes, I found a reliable and more affordable alternative in Redemption. To each their own, I guess.
208 – 212 Westbourne Grove
London, W11 2RH
Nearest tube station: Notting Hill Gate
See website for opening hours