For anyone familiar with how Soho used to be – or, indeed, with the film Mrs Henderson Presents starring Judi Dench – the revival of The Windmill is an intriguing notion.
In many ways, the clean-up of Soho has been both disappointing and welcome. There was a grubby charm to what Soho was in its recent past, but then much of that also came at an obvious human cost – so you have to take that into consideration too. It’s a sort of Schrödinger’s gentrification; a clean-up that’s simultaneously good and bad. And, at the heart of it all, is The Windmill, as it has been for decades.
As demonstrated by the entertaining Mrs Henderson Presents, The Windmill was home to nude showgirls who famously stood as still as statues, exploiting a legal loophole permitting nakedness as long as the performer was motionless (succinctly described by many as “if it moves, it’s rude”). It was also home to the “Windmill Steeplechase”, an additional charge for occupying the front row seats for the best view.
Famously, The Windmill remained open throughout the Blitz; its proud claim that “we never closed” predictably became “we never clothed”. It saw out the 60s as a slightly risqué cinema before “erotica entrepreneur” Paul Raymond (hey, it’s a nicer, and more accurate, term than “porn publisher”) bought it and brought back the nudity (in motion, this time) in a series of plays, dance shows and supper club cabarets.
‘They’ve mistaken vulgarity for sexiness’
In more recent years, The Windmill was a table-dancing venue but now, after a £10m refit, new owners Ryan Bishti and Amrit Walia have relaunched the venue as a restaurant and cabaret promising a “spectacular theatrical dining experience”. But does it deliver?
In a word? No. In more words, no, it doesn’t, but then maybe I’m just middle-aged, grumpy and don’t laugh like a drain because someone’s made an obvious dick joke. Looking around at the mostly much younger audience, clearly having a whale of a time at the general cabaret and the non-threatening menu and cocktails, I just felt very old.
On the plus side, I did visit with a secret weapon. A very good friend of mine, Giles, was (remarkably) a male performer at The Windmill in the Paul Raymond days and has many, many excellent stories. Sadly this only threw the weaknesses of The Windmill into even greater relief.
For the sake of positivity – because it’s been a rubbish year – let’s rattle through the negatives and get to the good bits as quickly as possible. The biggest downside, aptly summed up by Giles, was the cabaret itself. “They’ve mistaken vulgarity for sexiness”, he said, with a sigh. And they had.
They had also mistaken vulgarity for edginess. You do, of course, expect a show in this venue to be a little risqué but, instead, it was less than a minute before the audience was referred to as “motherf*ckers”. This was swiftly followed by comedy musical trio, the knitwear-bedecked Cardigan Bs, attempting to get the still-sober audience to join in with their “wet ass pussy” song.
As their subsequent appearance – a jaw-droppingly unfunny puppet routine – confirmed, their name was the most humorous thing about them. I could have also lived without their “jokey” insults when our paths crossed on the stairs later as I tried to find the gents. Yes chaps, well done, I AM bald. How clever of you to notice.
There were also some negatives which one hopes can be written off as teething problems. The aerial silk performer was impressive when you could see her but all too often she was literally left in the dark. “There’s no point in having a follow-spot”, said Giles, between sips of an overly sweet La Vie En Rosé cocktail, “if they don’t follow”.
As for the dancers, the first routine wasn’t impressive – “our choreographer would be spinning in his grave”, Giles remarked – but the second was much, much better, suggesting that there is some talent both on and offstage.
The food… well, on the face of it, it was inoffensive. The menu has been overseen, apparently, by Andrew McLeish of the Michelin-starred Chapter One in Orpington.
I’m taking their word for it because, well, the execution did not do anyone any favours, particularly with a price tag of £69 or £109 for three courses. This is substantially more expensive than Chapter One and even more so when you consider that side dishes are: a) extra; and b) laughably priced. I mean, £10 mash, anyone? £12 mac n cheese?
But the menu did contain a crowd-pleasing list of things to eat – and the other guests appeared happier with their choices than we were. The carpaccio, while rather cold, was good, ditto the crudités. The tuna tacos were pleasant enough, if a little over-processed and mushy. And regarding the chicken Milanese… well, we liked the lemon. Otherwise, it was a pretty tasteless slab of protein, albeit generously portioned, and we also wished the “thousand leaf potatoes” had been as salty as the salad dressing.
Desserts followed a similar pattern. The chocolate and popcorn ice cream lollipops were highly enjoyable, but the mini sticky toffee pudding? We actually had to check the menu to make sure we’d heard our waiter correctly. I mean, I’m all for “takes” on classic dishes but this one was more Mars bar than pudding. And not as good as a Mars.
‘Staff deserve it to be a hit’
And now for the good points, which are pretty much covered by one word: staff.
The personnel The Windmill has assembled were all impeccable, across the board. The doorman was charming and funny. The glamorous team greeting you and showing you to your table were charming and efficient. The general manager was omnipresent and, yes, charming.
The waiting staff were a little over-eager – we were asked four times, twice by people we’d never even seen before, whether we were enjoying our main course – but as they were friendly, knowledgeable and efficient, the over-eagerness was easily forgiven.
The show’s host – a young Irish drag act – while occasionally out of her depth on stage, was funny as hell and charm incarnate off it. The music was excellent too, just VERY loud. We noticed at least two other tables asking to move from under a speaker, mostly because we were about to ask the same thing.
To give the staff their due, however, they did seem to turn it down a little, although the volume was most likely the reason we were brought a second round of grim, allegedly gin-based cocktails that neither of us remembered ordering.
The thing is, I would LOVE to see The Windmill do well. It’s a bold attempt to give London something different to the usual; a proper throwback to those glamorous, now romantically sleazy days of yore, and the sort of eccentric diversion we probably need as we deal with whatever stage of Covid-related chaos we’re currently processing.
And, as I say, we seemed to be in the minority during our visit; the younger/thinner/more beautiful people clearly had a high old time, happily dropping cash and dancing between the tables… while we just felt old. And hungry.
I wish The Windmill well, though. It’s a brave move – doubly so in the current climate – and the staff absolutely deserve it to be a hit.
The Windmill Soho, 17-19 Great Windmill St, London W1D 7JZ; thewindmillsoho.com