Few districts are populated with as many institutions as Soho. The Groucho Club? A Soho institution. The Coach & Horses? A Soho institution. That wine bar that opened last year? A Soho institution (in the making). Basically, if a business has existed in Soho for more than a week, somebody will try to institutionalise it.

So anyway, L'Escargot is a Soho institution – an actual one. London’s oldest French restaurant was opened by a chap named Georges Gaudin in 1896, although its name and current location in a Georgian townhouse date back to a youthful 1927. A bust of Gaudin is still outside the restaurant – he’s riding a snail, naturally.

Inside is a dining room absolutely dripping in art and opulence. Imagine the home of a slightly eccentric uncle who’s extremely wealthy and a regular at Sotheby’s. You’ll find no shortage of wealthy, slightly eccentric uncles among your fellow diners – or aunts for that matter. It’s that kind of place, grand yet irresistibly bohemian. I took my friend Lonan and we sat in literal armchairs. (More traditional seating is also available.)

As you can imagine, everyone who’s anyone has eaten here over the decades: from artists to actors to royalty. (Princess Diana was a great fan.) It’s the kind of place that feels special and makes you feel special as well. Complimentary glass of champagne? Don’t mind if I do, mon ami.

L'Escargot Restaurant, Soho

What to order?

The restaurant is called L’Escargot: you have to get the snails. It would be absolutely mad if you didn't get the snails. Fortunately the snails are worth getting. They come in their special tray slathered in garlic butter and parsley, looking like the most decadent garden sculpture ever conceived.

You'll need ample bread and butter. Excavate the oily little potholes with your doughy spade. Feel your waistline expanding every bite. Totally worth it. 

L'Escargot Restaurant, Soho

Speaking of decadence, we reach the lobster bisque. Oh my word, the lobster bisque. "It warms the soul, mate," says Lonan. I had a spoonful and my soul was indeed warmed. I wish I could offer more feedback but when I went for another taste, it was already gone.

"I thought it was rude to leave the last spoonful,” says Lonan. I would have accepted the last spoonful… “There's a little bit at the bottom. For some bread.” I pick up some bread. There isn't any left at the bottom.

I have my revenge come the main course. His ribeye steak is by all accounts a lovely cut of meat. But you know what it isn’t? It isn’t the fillet of beef cooked ‘rossini’ style. That means a beef tournedo pan fried in butter, served alongside a crouton, topped with a slice of foie gras pate and fried again for good measure. The result is a dish so deliciously sinful it might have been cooked by the devil himself.

L'Escargot Restaurant, Soho

For dessert we share a crème brûlée and it honestly might be the best crème brûlée I’ve ever eaten. Alas, there wasn’t enough room for the chocolate Soufflé that takes 20 minutes to prepare. As good an excuse as any to return. The wine list offers purely French labels – why wouldn’t it? I had a lovely robust red that paired excellently with the beef fillet.

What’s the damage?

Put it this way: the snails aren't the only things shelling out here. Six of them cost £18, the lobster bisque £16. The beef rossini is an eye-watering £60, although it rivals the baked lobster for the priciest dish on the menu. Wine starts at £9 a glass and £34 a bottle.

The food is devilishly good and devilishly expensive. But in a world where the latter doesn’t necessarily mean the former, we should appreciate the places where it does.

Anything else to note?

L’Escargot is far more than a mere restaurant. After dinner, head up to the Snail Bar on the top floor for a cocktail and live piano. There are also three private dining rooms that can be hired for private functions. Go explore – but remember, slow and steady... 

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48 Greek St, London W1D 4EF; L'Escargot