Diners sit on simple stools at feeding stations situated throughout the room as shoppers stream through continuously from other parts of the iconic Brompton Road department store.
The atmosphere is a mashup: think unrelaxing mall food court combined with sophisticated bistro.
Tossed into the mix is the stunning Edwardian-era decor, considered one of England's best Arts and Crafts style interiors. Royal Doulton ceramic tile peacocks populate the walls, fantasy medieval landscapes adorn the ceiling, and a pair of voluptuous mermaid sculptures (added in the 1990s) writhe near the Sea Grill.
The visual assault can be somewhat unbalancing. Crab salad for 26 pounds (C$43)? Sure, why not. Lobster thermidor for 60 pounds (C$98)? Let's go for it!
I wander in at 7 p.m. from luxury handbags, the adjacent room, and take in the culinary offerings.
"Diners have to be out the door by 8 o'clock when the store closes," a server warns me.
One corner is red meat: you choose the cut you want and watch as it's carved and then handed to a chef. In the centre of the room, a swish rectangular bar dishes out caviar and smoked Scottish salmon.
I opt for a multi-course itinerary: start at the Oyster Bar, move to the Sea Grill for chowder and wind up at the Rotisserie for roasted half duck. Ambitious, given the time constraint, but hard to resist. Can it be done?
7:05 — Order six rock oysters and a glass of Muscadet. While waiting, observe the smartly dressed clientele seated nearby. Russian oligarchs? Qatari royals (owners of Harrods since 2010)? Other journalists posing as the well-heeled?
7:15 — Molluscs arrive with assorted condiments and are quickly slurped down. Relax for a moment to sip wine, then realize the clock is ticking and request bill: 30.50 pounds. No time to digest that (it shows up later on my credit card statement as C$50.02).
7:25 — Head to Sea Grill in the corner diagonally opposite, a waiter carrying my wine. Too late! The kitchen closed a moment ago. Chowderless, I dash to the Rotisserie across the room where orders are still being taken.
7:28 — Grab a stool at the counter just in time (the couple right behind me are turned away). But the duck — in fact, most of the menu — is no longer available. I order "baby chicken" (18.50 pounds, C$30.50), feeling lucky to be served anything at all.
7:41 — Main course arrives — a bit of an anti-climax. It's one small chicken cut in halves, served with a few slices of tomato. Very tender, having been marinated in yogurt, lime juice, garlic and herbs, but I am concentrating less on the taste than on not being able to finish by closing time. Leaving costly morsels on my plate while being ushered out of the building is an unwelcome prospect.
7:54 — Done! I drain the wine glass that has circled the room, pay the bill and rush to the exit where a security guard is allowing stragglers to leave. Out the door at 8:04.
Harrods has over two dozen restaurants, bars and cafes scattered throughout seven floors, ranging from a family diner selling burgers and shakes to the elegant Georgian, an airy expanse of white tablecloths and pink upholstered chairs. In total, 30,000 diners are served each week on average, said Harrods spokesperson Victoria Marston.
In addition to the famous Meat Hall, created in 1902, there are food halls selling tea, coffee, chocolate, charcuterie, cheese and "every gastronomic indulgence imaginable," Marston said in an email.
"Harrods started as a grocery shop in 1849 and food remains at its heart," she said.
For a Harrods dining experience that does not involve speed-eating, I try lunch the following day at the Galvin Demoiselle, which focuses on French cuisine. Opened in March by a pair of chefs who have earned Michelin stars for other London eateries, the Galvin occupies an attractive balcony space with banquettes overlooking a ground-floor food hall filled with candies, fruits and vegetables.
The soup de jour — an agreeable green concoction with pesto sauce, chopped vegetables and angel hair pasta — along with bread and butter and a small bottle of mineral water costs 17 pounds (C$28).
"I don't think we would eat a meal here," says Simon Miller, 43, underwhelmed by the Galvin's menu offerings but enjoying its ambience.
He and his wife, Julie, on a getaway from their home near Leeds, dropped in for white wine and "nibbles" — olives and such — after visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum nearby.
"It's a nice atmosphere, isn't it, very British," Julie says of the Harrods lunchtime scene. "We've just come for the experience, really."
If you go . . .
Harrods' regular hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Location: Steps from the Knightsbridge tube station on the Piccadilly line.
Store dress code: Clothing that portrays "offensive pictures or writing" is not allowed. Full guidelines are posted at http://bit.ly/MF03ro.