Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Kettner's, Romilly Street, Soho

Kettner’s is an important restaurant for me. It was on a rainy night at Kettner’s that I was inspired to champion the most historic eateries of London. I had read some short-sighted reviews from the most indecorous and bearded of London’s reviewers who had clambered onto the bandwagon of decrying the splendid efforts of both the owners and the interior designer Ilse Crawford in returning this historic restaurant to the sort of candle-glowing, palm-potted, piano-tinkling place it surely once was. Before this restoration, it had been a dreadfully seedy pizza parlour catering for the sort of perfunctory, pre-theatre printed t-shirt crowd who stared blankly at the carved cherubs and intricate Rococo panelling. Thank heavens, in my opinion, that it has been taken on by someone of taste and turned into what I consider a perfect late-Victorian oasis in the increasingly dubious but still exciting district of Soho.

Original panelling and cornicing has been repainted, antique lighting has been carefully sourced, and a predominantly English staff hurry to and fro in the classic brasserie uniform of black trousers, white shirts and black ties. The only music you ever hear comes from the pianist tucked away from the main dining room; a room which is surrounded by the bright lights of Soho, being glazed on two of it’s four sides. There is no doubting Kettner’s is a romantic restaurant. Edward VII liked to meet Lillie Langtry here after her performances in one of the nearby theatres and it is said that Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas dined here frequently, although the assertion in the menu that Mr Wilde was arrested at Kettner’s is incorrect – he was arrested in Belgravia at the Cadogan Hotel. Other stories of Agatha Christie, Noel Coward and other luminaries of the stage and screen are connected with Kettner’s.

History is Kettner’s currency. Like the Criterion, the food is merely a supporting act. The mirrored and panelled walls, corniced ceiling and secret doorways are worth more than a Michelin star. This is an establishment of scandal, of Victorian fashion and of twentieth century decline. Opened in 1867 by Auguste Kettner, formerly chef to Napoleon III of France, it debuted at a time when French cuisine and culture were beginning to be the fashion in London. The French were no longer the black-toothed, cross-channel revolutionaries of the early 19th century. The Second Empire had silenced the Republic and had seen the transformation of the French capital from “dirty, crowded, damp and fetid streets… filled with the signs of poverty” to Haussmann’s bourgeois boulevards. Charles Worth, an English couturier, had set up his famous couture house in Paris in the previous decade and ‘French fashions’ were de rigueur.

Kettner had arrived just in time. His kitchens became famous for serving what was considered to be, at the time, experimental and unusual cuisine. Lauded for his skill, the popularity of Kettner’s grew. Today’s edible incarnations do not offer the same kind of thrill that Kettner brought to London but they are wholesome, unpretentious and full of flavour.

The menu plays up to the atmosphere with historic nods to French cuisine (Fish Soup, Rouille & Croutons and Beef Bourguignon) and there are even quirky illustrations that bear strong stylistic similarities to the Victorian artist Aubrey Beardsley. Kettner’s is a grand place. Refreshingly conscious of what it is and what it was. Too many places in London attempt to shrug off the great days by reinvention and even reclassification; painting over the stucco and plastering the cornicing, dragging in a velvet chair here, an appalling modernist print there. I like that Kettner’s is humble enough to acknowledge that it is not a place of fashion or self-satisfied haute cuisine and I respect that it pays homage to an era of previous greatness.

Most of all, I bally well love eating here.


29 Romilly St. Soho, London W1D 5HP

Thursday, 5 August 2010

The Criterion, Piccadilly Circus

The Criterion is without a doubt one of the grandest restaurants in London. Whoever the proprietors of this monument to Victorian exoticism ever are, their food can never manage to compete with the magnificent setting. Referred to by some as little more than an elephantine Turkish bath, there is certainly a lack of intimacy in this gilded cavern; chatter echoes off the tiled walls, cutlery seems to clash against china like sword against shield. And although the Byzantine elements are remarkable, there is a regiment to the decor that is coldly colonial; little English tables sit preposterously in a salon of a Sultan.

Built in 1873, along with the Criterion Theatre next door, to designs by Thomas Verity, the Criterion Restaurant (which was actually the Long Bar at the time, the Restaurant was upstairs) was to be altered, and reduced in size, less than ten years later when improvements were being made to the theatre. The auditorium was underground and had previously been gaslit. Fresh air had been pumped into the stifling theatre through a tube from the ground thirty feet above and the venerable Ministry of Works decided that this was not an appropriate form of ventilation for a centre of Art in the capital of the greatest empire in the world.
The Criterion became a dining establishment of good repute, and it remained a popular haunt of the upper-classes well into the Twentieth century. Even during World War II the Criterion complex, particularly the Blitz-safe underground theatre, continued to be a popular location with the BBC recording and broadcasting for the benefit of cheering up Blighty during the dark years of war. After the war, the Criterion declined. Theatre had been replaced by television and cinema, and the quaint elegance of a grandiloquent past was no longer attractive to a London which yearned to forget.

The inevitable occurred; the Criterion site was proposed for demolition. Post-war London planning was little more than organised destruction. What the bombs hadn't touched, the town councils and local government, drunk on the spirit of 'modernism' in the feverish and predictably ephemeral decade that was the 1960s, decided to remove. Concrete tower blocks soared above old terraced rows, glass and steel stomped on the Portland stone of old London; many of the old theatres and music halls, now considered 'surplus to requirements', were to be razed. Had it not been for the high profile support of actors like Sir John Gielgud, there would be no Criterion Theatre. And, had there been no Criterion Theatre, there would be no Restaurant.
It is gratifying to live in an age when most people consider the survival of buildings of this vintage, and this elegance, to be of the utmost importance. I shudder to think what monstrosity the 1970s architects would have drawn up for this site, located in one of the most historic and popular areas of London.

The Restaurant was formerly run by Marco Pierre White who bought it from the Forte leisure group. White decided not to play up to the fanciful decorative scheme with fanciful cuisine and instead offered classic brasserie dishes like oysters, lamb chops and Eton mess; the sort of food an Edwardian schoolboy would wolf down on a weekend in town. Eight years later, White sold the restaurant to a group headed by a Georgian entrepreneur in his early twenties. Clearly attracted by the, ahem, 'bling' interior, the enthusiastic reopening of this London classic last year met with mixed reviews. The presence of sushi on a menu at one of London's oldest dining destinations was unfathomable, as were the crushed velvet bucket chairs that looked as though they'd been pinched from a pornography conference in Las Vegas and the matchy-matchy blue silk cushion covers and curtains. Aside from the lamps, it is an amateur decorative scheme but one which, fortunately, does not distract from the physical beauty of the pillars and the glorious, glittering ceiling.

The sense of history, and occasion, in this venue is palpable. It is of a church-like scale and grandeur rarely seen in dining establishments. This fine establishment, which once echoed with the cheers and laughter of victorious soldiers; the shrill laughter of women in large hats and lace gloves and the boisterous bonhomie of boozy thespians, may be no temple to fine dining, but it never really was, it never really wanted to be and, in all honesty, we never wanted it to be either. It is simply a gorgeous jewel box in which one can happily scoff and imbibe; informally and with gusto.


224 Piccadilly, Piccadilly, London W1J 9HP


T 020 7930 0488

Friday, 26 March 2010

An introduction

While not famous for its cuisine, London has long been a splendid city in which to dine. When Auguste Escoffier was appointed to head the kitchens at the Savoy Hotel, London was the imperial capital. A city of grandeur and pomp that attracted famous visitors from around the world. It was during his time at the Savoy with Cesar Ritz that Escoffier transformed London's public dining into a fashionable and desirable pastime under the patronage of Edward, the Prince of Wales. Dining room mirrors had, hitherto, rarely seen the splendour of a Countess's jewels or the magnificence of a Duchess's tiara but those first nights at the Savoy, with Escoffier's French staff and the meticulous management of Ritz, heralded a new age and a new style which lasts to this day; the fashion of eating out to 'see or be seen.'

One of my favourite words in the English language is 'bastion' - a term pertinent to many of the establishments which will soon be discussed on these pages. For they are the remainder, and indeed the reminder, of London's dining past. They have withstood fashions, revolutions, air raids and modernisation. There is no test that they have failed; the cannon fire of decades of critics, the incendiaries of public whim. They are remarkable places that, whatever one might say about the changes in ownership, food or the guest lavatories, are evidence that restaurants can flourish and, more importantly, survive in a frenetic and cosmopolitan capital.

Many of these restaurants are no longer amongst the top dining choices in the city and rely, understandably, on former glories. They are ageing dowagers but still worthy of consideration; they have a magic and a palpable sense of history that is utterly intoxicating. The food is rarely the star at such places, no matter how competent the kitchen so I encourage the reader to appreciate these venues for what they were as well as what they are - this is not a food blog on which I pour hot lava critiques on poor restaurateurs. For one thing, I am not qualified to judge food to that level.

These pages serve as a guide to those interested in London's most historic eateries; whether you are interested in dining in one of these venues, or simply browsing through I hope to make this endeavour worthy of your time.