The well-heeled are turning their designer-clad backs on material possessions. Things to do, rather than things to own, will comprise two-thirds of the luxury market by 2022, according to Boston Consulting Group, and companies are scrambling to keep up. Last December LVMH, better known for making expensive handbags and champagne, bought Belmond, a company that owns hotels and the Orient Express train service, for $3.2bn. As with many fads, this shift has been ascribed to millennials: those of us born towards the end of the 20th century apparently don’t want as much stuff as our parents (presumably because we can’t afford the space to put it all).
My interest was piqued when the latest entrant into London’s “experiential economy” rumbled up beside me on my commute. Promising “the original gourmet tour of London”, Bustronome is – aside from an excruciating portmanteau of “bus” and “gastronome” – a double-decker that trundles through the capital, as a chef on board prepares a six-course meal for its passengers. Diners predisposed to motion sickness should trust their instincts. As a card-carrying millennial with a strong constitution, however, I booked a table for two.
Stepping onto the bus (not a charming red Routemaster but a modern grey behemoth), we were led past a gleaming kitchen, squeezed onto the lower deck, and up the stairs to the restaurant. With leather-clad seating for 38, wood-panelling and an impressive glass canopy that made the most of the elevated view, it was undoubtedly opulent. That said, I found it hard to shake memories of the meal I usually associate with top-deck dining: fried chicken, wolfed down at the end of a drunken night out. The heavy cutlery laid out in front of us was magnetically rooted to the tabletop, and a plastic rack with various cut-outs held our glasses steady. All ingenious, if not classically luxurious.
After a wait of about 20 minutes, the engine growled to life and we, along with four other diners – two of whom turned out to be Bustronome’s boss and his partner – set off, glassware clinking merrily. Our waiter assured us that it was usually busier, and that Bustronome is very popular in Paris, where it originated. Beginning on the north embankment of the Thames, the route took us east past St Paul’s cathedral and over Tower Bridge, before heading west again past Big Ben, Hyde Park and Harrods.
To accompany our dinner (more on which in a moment), a hand-held audio guide offered facts about the famous buildings that we were inching past in the rush-hour traffic. These included a reminder that “fans of Princess Diana should not miss” her memorial in Harrods (though they will have a hard time finding it, considering it was removed last year), while George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” played over the bus’s sound-system, adding a melancholy note to the main course. When “Creep” by Radiohead started playing as we tucked into the cheese course (“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here?”), I began to think something had been lost in translation between Paris and London.
The menu did nothing to allay these suspicions. “Inspired by the very best of British cuisine,” it promised such mysterious delights as beef with “multicolored of carrots” and “brown cinnamon juice”. An avocado starter sated the millennial in me, although the aforementioned brown sauce accompanying the main course was saltier than an Oscar Wilde put-down. The strongest evidence of said Britishness was a miniature Yorkshire pudding, proving that to the French we will always be les rosbifs. If this is the extent of Franco-British understanding it’s little wonder that Brexit is proving tricky. The red wine served with the main course was curiously chilled too; pleasant on a balmy evening, less so on a January night.
Dinner was rounded off by a chocolate rocky road, like a fancier Snickers bar and presumably not a dig at London’s many potholes. It was tasty, but served so cold that it was difficult to crunch through. This criticism should of course be taken with a pinch of salt (or not, in the case of the sauce): all of this food was prepared on a moving bus, a skill bafflingly overlooked by most cookery schools. The dishes were put together with impressive attention to detail, especially considering the lone chef on board admitted he’d never cooked on a double decker before. Despite this, £150 per person is a lot of money for an experience that reminded my companion of dining on an aeroplane, however dynamic the view.
The whole thing was enjoyably unique, even if eating ceviche in a bus lane felt more National Express than Orient Express. Commuters on the top deck of the 137 to Marble Arch certainly loved peering into our rolling restaurant, and the couple sitting behind us said they had a good time. As an experience, it had everything today’s big spenders should clamour for: quirkiness, exclusivity and enough visual fodder to fill an Instagram account. When you’re splashing out on just a few fleeting moments, maybe it’s OK if presentation trumps substance, especially if the experience takes on a life of its own on social media. If nothing else, Bustronome’s dishes were unfailingly pretty. But the next time I’m eating out, I’ll opt for a restaurant not subject to the congestion charge. Then I’ll take the bus home.