ESCAPING THE ZEITGEIST
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
L. P. Hartley (1895-1972)
Differently, certainly; and better, in many instances. Here I’m talking about restaurants, London establishments that have resisted the urge to move with the times, that stick resolutely to what they have always done, that might possibly do things with an avocado but never put it on toast.
They are not all old but I want to start with one that has its roots in the fifteenth century. A tavern was standing in the agricultural fields of Mayfair when the Black Death broke out, and they have been serving booze on the same site ever since, notwithstanding the best efforts of the Luftwaffe and of London’s ruthless property market.
It has been owned by Young’s, the brewers, since the days of Jack the Ripper (who operated very far to the east of here) and of late it has been in the hands of landlord, Oisín Rogers, late of The Ship in Wandsworth and The Canonbury in Islington. Highly intelligent and distinctly personable, with strong views on how the hospitality industry should be run, he’s a widely recognised figure in the world of London restaurants. We went to the same school but not at the same time.
I first met Oisín when I had just graduated from TCD and had returned to Belvedere to see Gerry Haugh’s production of David Copperfield (the script of which I had typed onto Roneo stencils). Oisín was playing the young David.
These days his instincts regarding hospitality are worthy of Brooks of Sheffield, as Mr Murdstone might have put it. Sharp, but in a very good way. And when he took on this venerable boozer and its restaurant he very sensibly decided to change nothing at all.
Nothing apart from the colour of the grill room’s walls which had been, since 1952, a kind of nicotine cream; they are now a comforting, soothing dark red from the Farrow & Ball catalogue.
Anyway, a year before the present Queen’s coronation, the landlord of The Guinea started sourcing fine Scottish beef from Aberdeenshire, sometimes driving up and back himself, with carcasses on the back seat.
At first there was no menu. You simply indicated which piece of animal you wanted, marked it with your knife and had it grilled to order.
These days there’s a menu which has changed only marginally since the days of Mad Men: classic prawn cocktail, smoked salmon, oysters, all manner of steaks and list of items “to compliment” your meat.
That these include a lamb cutlet and “two fried eggs” is, in my view, brilliant and to be celebrated. As is the fact that the chips (so described, none of your “fries” here) are cooked in beef dripping which is precisely how they should be.
The steaks are still Scottish and prominently displayed as you enter, and, while the customer is always right, they strongly advise nothing more bien cuit than medium rare.
The Guinea Grill used to be something of a secret. Just as London’s clubs – such as the Garrick, White’s or Brooks’s – never advertise their presence, on the basis that everyone who needs to know where and what they are knows already, it has never needed to shout. Its army of loyal customers have always known that it’s tucked away in a mews lane behind Berkeley Square (and Conduit Street).
The Guinea Grill,
30 Bruton Place, London,W1J6NL
Phone: +44 20 7409 1728
A brisk walk to the east from Bruton Place is Lexington Street in Soho where Andrew Edmunds started selling antique prints in the late 1970s. In 1986 the wine bar next door to his shop went bust and he bought it, turning it into a compact restaurant – intimate or cramped, depending on how you view these things, known from the start for an enthusiastic and generous wine list and often cited as one of the most romantic of London restaurants (which may owe much to dozens of candles stuck in serious wine bottles: my last candle holder was Leoville-Poyferré 1999).
Andrew Edmunds, behind its black, rather Georgian shopfront, allows us a breather from the zeitgeist. The food is solid, unpretentious cooking: a duck confit salad with chicory and mustard vinaigrette, potted shrimp with toast, a pie of chicken, leeks and tarragon for two, skate wing with brown butter and capers, spiced rice pudding with blood orange, ginger pudding with butterscotch sauce… In a sense, it’s like Jane Grigson has returned and is rattling the pans in the kitchen.
Yes, it’s informal and noisy, the seats are hard, elbow room is at a premium but the service is charming and the wine list offers by far the best value in London. It claims to be one of the last bastions of the old Soho (which I vaguely remember) and it’s certainly and commendably out of step with the contemporary world.
46 Lexington Street, London W1F 0LP
Phone: +44 20 7437 5708
Not far away you will find Quo Vadis on Dean Street. Or what’s left of it. Owned since 2007 by the Hart Brothers of Barrafina tapas fame, it has lost its dining room (to rehousing the original Barrafina after the Frith Street lease ran out) and now has a claim to being the most exclusive restaurant in London: it has six tables and a private members’ club upstairs. Nevertheless, I love it. I love the tiny bar, the impeccable martinis, the charming staff, the stripped back essentially English food by Jeremy Lee and his sheer personal exuberance (described, I think, by Oisín Rogers as “boomingly dainty”).
Jeremy’s menus are beautifully illustrated by John Broadley in his distinctive somewhat retro style and change daily, often on a whim, always on sound seasonal judgement.
It was not always thus. Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital upstairs long before the place became a restaurant – which it did in 1926. For ten years, from the mid-1990s, it was a joint venture between Marco Pierre White and Damien Hirst. And yes, the mind does boggle.
Even severely truncated, it’s a lovely space that speaks of more leisurely days, the light of the Soho afternoon or evening filtering through the stained glass façade. And the cooking is so confident, grounded and unpretentious that, once again, it presents an opportunity to escape the zeitgeist.
26-29 Dean Street, London W1D 3LL
Phone: +44 20 7437 9585
I don’t know why it has taken me so long to visit Otto’s, a great favourite amongst my London friends and, in a wider context, amongst those who like things done properly and with no nods to contemporary fashions. This venerable restaurant, a short trot north from Chancery Lane tube station, gives every impression of having been there forever. In fact, it was transformed from a Japanese establishment, reputedly pretty awful, into a temple to classic French gastronomy as recently as 2011.
Otto himself is German and has worked all over the world – including stints at Mirabelle and Mossimann’s – before opening here on Gray’s Inn Road. The fin de siècle specialities are canard à la presse (a reminder of Waugh’s gluttonous menu in Brideshead Revisited, published during the austerity of World War II) and homard á la presse and whole poulet de Bresse. These elaborately served dishes are for two and cost considerably northwards of a hundred quid but, I am told, are experiences of a lifetime.
My much humbler but delightful experience of Otto’s involved a ballotine of guinea fowl with apricot, a wild boar pie with red cabbage and mushrooms, and a selection of cheeses, each in perfect shape. Plus a glass of Champagne and half a bottle of claret.
I later fell into conversation with Otto who joined me at the table and dispensed stupendous Armagnac, reminiscence and wisdom. I concluded that there is nowhere quite like it and that I must return.
Otto’s French Restaurant,
182 Gray’s Inn Road, London, WC1X 8EW
Phone: + 44 20 7713 0107