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The time has come to admit to a secret addiction. The meal I look forward to most, the one that has brought the happiest memories, is undoubtedly Saturday lunch. I have only a rough idea of when this habit began but I do know precisely who was responsible: it was about 25 years ago and the guilty parties were my wife and children.
That was the era when a good Saturday lunch was a parental bribe. We said to our children that if they enjoyed the museum, gallery or walk we had chosen, their reward would be a good lunch. In those days that meant pasta or pizza, ice-cream or chocolate.
This tactic worked wherever we went: London, Paris, Vienna, Milan, Barcelona. And in every city, Saturday has its virtues. There are more places to visit, both before and after lunch, and if the lunch is very good there is the prospect of a siesta, free from that Sunday evening anxiety about a late trip home or the coming week. And, because many restaurants that open for Saturday lunch tend to stay open all afternoon and then into the evening, service can often be at its most relaxed and attentive.
In our family, we have had many celebrations over Saturday lunch. The back room of Racine, in Brompton Road, London, was the venue for a significant birthday for our son while St John, in Smithfield, squeezed in 100 friends and 30 of their children for my 50th many years ago.
More and more restaurateurs are adapting to their customers’ changing demands and opening for Saturday lunch. These include the Mirror Room at the lavishly renovated Rosewood Hotel, close to the exquisite Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and Berners Tavern in the Berners Street Hotel, a brisk walk from the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square and temptingly close to Oxford Street.
Both these restaurants are the result of hoteliers’ deep pockets. But as proof of just how important a busy restaurant is to any new hotel, both have brought in individuals who give each restaurant a sense of distinctiveness.
Tony Chi, a New York-based designer, has spent Rosewood’s money to impressive effect, generating a sense of luxury and warmth. Into this comfortable space has been added the culinary talent of Bjorn Van Der Horst, a chef who has returned to London from Bali as director of food and beverage.
There is some very good food here, in particular a Dover sole with truffle mayonnaise, a veal tartare, and a lamb, sweetbread and Guinness pie. Desserts are excellent, which bodes well for anyone looking for a new place to take afternoon tea.
Another feature the two restaurants share is an excellent range of wines by the glass (so that the Saturday siesta does not last too long) compiled by enthusiastic sommeliers: Patrick Frawley at the Mirror Room and Biarritz-born Jonathan Fillion at Berners Tavern.
I had just sat down at Berners Tavern when I witnessed something that possibly happens only during a Saturday lunch. Fillion emerged from the service corridor carrying a decanter of red wine and four expensive glasses when a small child crawled in front of him. Fillion swerved; an accident was averted; and the child was soon safely in his mother’s arms.
The restaurant and hotel have been underwritten by Marriott, which has brought in two specialists: designer Ian Schrager and chef Jason Atherton. Schrager has created an eye-catching decor: paintings hang from the high walls (which are cleaned and polished every night) and there are two vast chandeliers that once hung in New York’s Grand Central Station.
Atherton’s menu is equally strong. A potato and parsley soup served with Dorset snails and a toasted sandwich filled with black pudding was particularly successful, as was the pappardelle with a Scottish game ragu. The scallops in the ceviche were slightly too warm and the “sandwich” of pulled pork was, in fact, a hamburger bun. The salted caramel ice-cream was first class but other desserts proved somewhat stodgy.
As bottles of champagne were being opened at 4pm, I realised that I may not be the only person addicted to Saturday lunch. “We never expected to be so busy on Saturday lunch but we had 145 booked today,” said Matthew Mawtus, Berners’ general manager, with great satisfaction.
Rosewood London, 252 High Holborn, London WC1, 020 7781 8888; www.rosewoodhotels.com
10 Berners Street, London W1, 020 7908 7979; www.bernerstavern.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lander