FOOD / So nostalgic, so voluptuous, so hip: Grand vision or folie de grandeur? Emily Green savours the glamour of Quaglino's, Sir Terence Conran's new restaurant
Saturday 20 February 1993
There would be great banks of fruits de mers, rotisserie, salty chips, steaks and crisply finished tarts. It would seat hundreds: not 100, not 200, but 300. No, add a bar and make it 400. There would be noise. Waiters would dash. Platters would crash.
He is far from the only British restaurateur to indulge such a pipe dream, but he is the only one to carry it off. Last Sunday he opened Quaglino's, set on the site of what once was the ballroom of the old Quaglino's hotel.
If it works (and it is a gamble), it will be a triumph. The attempt alone should qualify him for Freedom of the City. It will be a much-needed shot in the arm for a St James's back street which, before his arrival, was so polite, so full of foreigners and so rich it was damn near dead.
No host, they say, will ever surpass old Giovanni Quaglino, who opened the hotel in 1929. He drew the Duke of Windsor as a client. Novelists ate there, from Evelyn Waugh to Barbara Cartland, who claims to have found a pearl in her dish of oysters. By the time Roxy Music sang of it in the Seventies (in Do the Strand), Quaglino's had already slipped into obscurity. Trusthouse Forte bought it in the early Seventies. It shut in 1981 and stayed dark until Sir Terence and his partner, Joel Kissin, sank pounds 2.5m into refurbishments and unveiled it last week.
This new Quaglino's nods deeply and lavishly to Thirties glamour. There is no contemporary restaurant quite so voluptuous, or quite so nostalgic. One enters through a sleek bar where a pianist plays; drinks are poured, light meals are served. There is even a dance floor and trios and quartets will play during the evenings at weekends.
Below is a vast sunken dining room, the size of an Olympic pool. It is approached down a sweeping, gently spotlit staircase. Staring is not only permitted, it is invited.
The dining room is dazzling, but it will undoubtedly provoke jealousy over 'good tables'. Those placed along the edges at bare laminated tables may find the lighting so dim they can scarcely make out their food, never mind read the menus. (The owners are addressing this problem.)
Pointing up the dilemma, just next to them will be a sumptuous table laid with linen and creamily spotlit. Last Monday, Bryan Ferry ate with a group that included a stunning woman with a jet black feathery cap and great display of cleavage.
She was utterly in tone with Quaglino's, especially that aspect of it designed by Jasper Conran, son of Sir Terence: staff uniforms. A cigarette girl was also bare-armed and bosomy in a fetching black tulle flounce. She did her best to drift effortlessly in high heels up and down the stairs. This will take practice: with the case hanging from her shoulders, she cannot see her feet.
All the staff are handsomely kitted out. Waiters wear blue and white jackets with gold buttons. Runners wear dark blue. Bartenders and managers wear variations of black and white. They look the part but also need practice, just as a chorus line needs grilling by the likes of Bob Fosse. Ideally they will dash, trays held high. During their first week they moved a bit gingerly and many were touchingly amateur, especially with the wines. Glasses were refilled too rarely and poured backhandedly, as if to conceal poison in a signet ring. And a request for chianti was greeted with: 'You mean the one from Italy?'
The pace must quicken, and not just for the dramatic effect. The owners intend it to take two sittings each service: 600 every lunch and dinner, 1,200 every day. To lure such numbers, prices must be approachable. So far, they are. Soups start at pounds 2.95, tarts at pounds 4.50, shellfish platters at pounds 14.50, and wines at pounds 8.50, with most costing less than pounds 20. Average spend? From pounds 25 to pounds 40.
In time that sort of price should buy pleasing food - time being the operative word. The 33-year-old chef, Martin Webb, is breaking in a team of 60 cooks. A similar operation in Pont de la Tour, where Mr Webb worked, took more than a year to settle. The menu of this six-day-old restaurant is already changing, starting with the layout. Mr Kissin has noticed customers squinting and is having new menus printed. Gnocchi proved too tricky and have been struck off. An attempt to serve mackerel with lime and coriander butter has been abandoned.
Some dishes were superb and may end up highlighted in red as house specialities. One was tender mussels heady with basil and cooking juices with julienned carrot and courgettes. Half of a roast poussin was properly cooked, resulting in a good salty skin and, oddly, served with sesame oil mayonnaise.
All the vegetables - rich spinach, French beans, mash and especially the chips - were excellent. Each is highly seasoned: taste before adding more.
Other dishes were diabolical: a roast Canadian lobster was mushy and oozing water. Even the shell was collapsible. We were slow to complain but, when we did, it was whisked away and a replacement cheerfully offered.
Other dishes simply need fine tuning. According to the chef, juices were exploding through the pastry of the first batches of sweetbread tarts. They attempted a less juicy filling. The one we ate was was perilously dry.
'Pasta e fagioli' proved to be a light bean soup, the stock slightly anaemic, but studded with a wide, reasonably tender ribbon of pasta, well-cooked beans, celery, carrots etc, and generously topped with shaved parmesan.
The bread rolls are not quite right, but there is more right with them than wrong: the body tastes wholesome, as if good flour has been used. The chewiness and slack crust will surely change.
Among the desserts, there are classics, such as lemon tart and creme brulee. In addition, Mr Webb has adapted a Lancashire parkin cake to a pudding. It is slightly rubbery, but rich with oatmeal and spiced with molasses, ginger and nutmeg. Coffee, as in all Conran restaurants, is excellent.
Unlike La Coupole, we must book tables at Quaglino's. Sir Terence would, no doubt, prefer the spontaneous French style, but he is probably right to suspect the British would not wear it. It is more than worth the phone call to book. Sir Terence has realised an extraordinarily sumptuous dream which invites us to dress up and revel. We would be fools to refuse.
Quaglino's, 16 Bury Street, London SW1 (071-930 6767). Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Wheelchair access to restaurant only (also wc). Pianist. Band and dancing Fri-Sat. Restaurant open daily lunch and dinner (last orders 12 midnight, 11pm Sun). Bar open 11.30am-12 midnight Mon- Sat, 12 noon-11pm Sun; from May 14, open to 3am Fri-Sat. Major credit cards.
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