From my first trip to London in the ‘70s, I fell in love with the city – the hustle and bustle and the vitality really connected with this Minnesota boy. The pomp and pageantry of it all…the Changing of the Guard…the jet-black horses and their mounts wearing brass breast plates shiny as trumpets…the Tower of London….Westminster Abbey…….so, so different from Minnesota and the farm town where I grew up.
But perhaps because Pete and I had just opened our first restaurant, MUFFULETTA, what resonated with me most were the FOOD HALLS of HARRODS department store in Knightsbridge. I’d never seen anything like them; never IMAGINED anything like them.
Here’s the thing about food halls in London (and Paris, Tokyo, Seoul…): They tend to reside in department stores (probably due to the incredible density of the urban population in the city.) And while SELFRIDGES’ basement food halls are impressive….as well as the top-floor food hall at HARVEY NICHOLS, nothing – and I mean nothing – compares to HARRODS.
First a bit of background……
HARRODS, at one time the largest department store in the world with over a million square feet spread over 7 floors, opened in 1849 and suffered a fire in 1883 that destroyed the building. When it reopened a few years later, the building boasted a new palatial style – with cherub-adorned terracotta tiles out front, swirling Art Nouveau windows, and a huge Baroque-style dome.
HARRODS sold exotic pets from Africa, Asia and South America ‘til the mid-1970s. They sold cars for a while and even had a funeral planning service. During World War II, they stopped selling luxury goods and transformed the shoe department to manufacture parachutes and uniforms. HARRODS boasts of having the first escalator as well.
The food halls are on the ground floor, and they are immense. I don’t know exactly how big, but I would suspect that they occupy close to 100,000 square feet – about the size of a Target store.
I had never in all my life seen merchandising like this. Pick a category of food; Harrods utterly dominated it. Charcuterie, for example: so beautifully exhibited and so “nervy” and bold and robust. And there was a natural beauty and innocence – a “grittiness” in the presentation of these carcasses of hare and Mallard ducks on marble slabs, (accompanied by wines appropriate for game). Then there were the Christmas turkeys cascading upside down from the ceiling. You can imagine Charles Dickens writing about that.
The fresh seafood? It transcended a mere “display;” it was sculpture.
HARRODS divides its food hall into several departments, each dominating a category – meat, produce, bakery and patisserie, charcuterie and hams, candy and treats, cheese and so on…..punctuated by a dozen or so sit-down food venues, including spaces rented to excellent London restaurants such as BENTLEY’S SEAFOOD. (I’ll write about Bentley’s in a separate posting sometime.)
Then something happened.
Mohamed al Fayed, a wealthy Egyptian, bought HARRODS in 1985. If you recall, his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana were later killed in a violent car crash in Paris. He dedicated a shrine – more than that, a grotto – to them in the store. Check out the picture. I don’t know if it’s still there.
In 1989, Fayed introduced a dress code….no more flip-flops….or high-cut shorts…..or swimwear…or thong sandals.
Following the death of Dodi and Princess Di, Fayed observed that neither Prince Charles nor the Queen were shopping at HARRODS any longer (the closing of the flip-flop department might have been the last straw for them). In retaliation, he removed the Royal Crest.
Coinciding with Fayed’s other decisions, the food halls began to change around that time as well, losing some of the “earthy” merchandising that I had fallen in love with. The seafood “sculpture” replaced its freshly caught fish with jars of seafood products. The carcasses of wild rabbits and Mallard ducks were now fully dressed and stored behind refrigerated glass. The Christmas turkeys were butchered and cleaned up as well – no feathers, no head, no feet…..NO FUN.
In fact, most all of the meats came off the ornate marble carving tables and were moved behind glass. That’s also where the dry aging now takes place.
These changes might have been made by Mohamed al Fayed or the London Health Department, and undoubtedly they increased efficiency and safety, but they still left me feeling a little down, a bit nostalgic. I’ve always preferred earthy and gritty to sleek and polished.
I’ll get over it.
And I’ll go back time and again and again…because Harrods’ food halls remain as arresting and impressive, as huge and beautiful, as ever….more than anything you’ve ever experienced.