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- Pollen Street Social, Mayfair
- Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, Mayfair
- Gymkhana, Mayfair
- The Wolseley, St James’s
- Locanda Locatelli, Marylebone
- The Guinea Grill, Mayfair
The power lunch has a lot in common with the supercar. They’re both bought for show and mostly unfit for purpose.
The streets of London’s affluent Knightsbridge, Kensington and Mayfair neighbourhoods have queues of Ferraris and Lamborghinis, all bellowing their presence in fitful 10ft bursts of acceleration between the traffic jams.
Meanwhile, in the restaurants nearby, work conversations are stalled by explanations of provenance, napkin fussing and gifts from the kitchen. Talking shop over a tasting menu is as frustrating as driving a McLaren down busy Bond Street.
Yet the misconception abides that to open a restaurant in London’s most expensive boroughs requires a chef who measures success in Michelin stars, and a room that looks like the inside of a jewellery box and sounds like an Ibiza rooftop bar.
Mayfair, the traditional heartland of London hedge funds and their investor base, in particular defaults to this kind of unnecessary excess. It has far too many glittering, gloomy, noisy restaurants that could be dropped unaltered into any Las Vegas casino or Dubai exhibition centre. Visitors to the area can expect multi-course menus veneered with signal ingredients such as truffle and foie gras. They’re ostentatiously expensive yet, after opening week, rarely run at more than half capacity.
The lazy explanation as to why these establishments exist tends to involve speculation about hot money, which seems unlikely. As one local restaurateur said to me: what’s the sense in running a bent business in London’s most on-display neighbourhood, when a tax inspector can check your numbers simply by looking through the window?
Instead, it seems, the underpopulated dining rooms stay open mostly because of the UK’s Tier 1 Investor Visa programme, which grants the right to work or study and eventually settle here in exchange for an investment of at least £2m in the UK.
So behind many a struggling restaurant is a high-net-worth absentee owner who thought hospitality would be a fun way to meet the inward investment criteria, only to find themselves trapped in a money pit. These places, my restaurant friend explained, are not failing because they’re crooked. They fail because they’re bad.
Restaurateurs in need of profit rather than a passport tend to adapt quickly to the needs of Mayfair’s many hedge funders and hangers-on. People round these parts want impressive yet unthreatening food, delivered by obsequious waiters, with a clubbable maître d’ and a kitchen that never rests. They favour glamour over glitz, and safety over both. It’s an area where everyone wants to see and be seen — but only when they choose.
For a real safari among Mayfair’s biggest beasts, head for the chain cafés behind Green Park station. Here you’ll find men in Brioni suits and wide-collar shirts scribbling names on napkins and swapping phone numbers in clandestine meetings rarely lasting more than 90 seconds. But Starbucks and Caffè Nero are good for power — not for lunch. There are better options:
1. Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen St, Mayfair, London W1S 1NQ
- Good for: inventive, accomplished cooking
- Not so good for: keeping a low profile
- FYI: the weekday set lunch offers one of Mayfair’s few genuine bargains
Chef-proprietor Jason Atherton is often described as a protégé of Gordon Ramsay. This seems true only in the sense that he has learnt from his old boss’s mistakes.
After leaving the Ramsay stable in 2010, Mr Atherton rolled out his own restaurants under the Social brand, choosing partnerships carefully and keeping each opening similar yet distinct. TV appearances never took priority over time at the pass of Pollen Street Social, his original restaurant, which since opening to wide acclaim in 2011 has settled into a comfortable rhythm of top-end cooking without pretension.
On a side street previously known only to taxi drivers, you’ll find a bright, lively room that for the immediate area is unusually unisex, with neutral decor and equal numbers of male and female clientele.
The kitchen aims for high-end and prices are commensurate — think £100 a head before opening the wine list — yet in an area where cost rarely aligns with quality, nothing here feels grasping.
2. Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill
11-15 Swallow St, Mayfair, London W1B 4DG
- Good for: a heap of crustaceans and a place to smoke your cigar
- Not so good for: impressing people who want their food to be clever
- FYI: televisions are wheeled on to the terrace during Wimbledon fortnight, when Bentley’s becomes perhaps the most civilised sports bar in the world
Everyone with money has a default seafood restaurant. The A-list celebrity class tends towards Scott’s on Mount Street, which does restrained glamour among enough marble and polished oak to refurb an oligarch’s yacht. Weary stockbrokers shelter from modernity in Sweetings, a lunchtime-only anachronism at the southern City border, while those preferring bustle can find it permanently at J Sheekey in Covent Garden. The pick of the moment among foodists seems to be The Sea, The Sea, a deluxe fishmonger with tables off Sloane Square.
Then there’s Bentley’s, a place favoured by people who want things done right.
At the cusp of the tourist dead zone between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, Bentley’s has been doing nothing complicated for more than a century.
Owner Richard Corrigan has a policy of buying fish straight from the boat and then interfering with it as little as possible. He’s a chef who dislikes chefs. (Oysters are shucked at street level, next to a tidy bar and terrace.) Aggressive pricing means his straightforward approach can leave some feeling short-changed, while those who see the merit in simplicity rarely want to go anywhere else.
The grill-room area upstairs has more in common with sister restaurant Corrigan’s Mayfair, a starchier affair about 15 minutes west, and preferable only in very cold weather.
42 Albemarle St, Mayfair, London W1S 4JH
- Good for: bold, punchy flavours
- Not so good for: cautious eaters
- FYI: ordering the lamb chops is obligatory
A disclaimer: at the time of writing Gymkhana is closed — a fire took out its kitchen — and it aims to reopen in early 2020.
In the meantime, its regulars have fallen back on Indian Accent, a few doors up the street, and Benares round the corner. The former is an outpost of its celebrated Delhi namesake, the latter a high-gloss stalwart that recently split with celebrity chef Atul Kochhar. Both are fine, but neither is a like-for-like replacement.
Unlike most top-end Indian restaurants, Gymkhana didn’t import a chef with a Michelin-baiting contemporary twist from the five-star hotel circuit. The cooking here is almost homely. Familiar dishes such as tandoori lamb chops and butter chicken masala are upscaled with good ingredients and sharp technique rather than silver leaf and truffle shavings. (It’s a matter for debate whether we should be comfortable paying through the nose for ritzed-up classics in a fantasy reconstruction of a colonial members’ club. Suffice to say, the regulars don’t appear to give it much thought.)
Another thing that sets Gymkhana apart is how well it works for a business crowd. Its proprietors, the Sethi siblings, own restaurants across London, each matched with a watchmaker’s care to its customer base. Gymkhana’s design has the signature of the eldest, Jyotin Sethi, who before turning to hospitality was an investment director at Barclays.
So, whether you’re in for an hour or an afternoon blowout, the menu flexes to match. Booths on each side of the room allow for privacy or table hopping as required, while a rear-wall bar facilitates quick conversations away from the group.
How many deals and trades have fallen by the wayside as a direct consequence of Gymkhana’s absence? Enough, certainly, to guarantee its reopening.
4. The Wolseley
160 Piccadilly, St. James’s, London W1J 9EB
- Good for: career-defining breakfasts
- Not so good for: relaxed evenings. The tables are turned systematically and the atmosphere is always turned up to 11
- FYI: it gets busy. Unless you want several hundred passers-by judging your menu choices, try to avoid the tables between the front door and the toilets
Almost immediately after opening in 2003, this all-day grand café became London’s C-suite centre of gravity. It retains the position even now, and it’s mostly thanks to breakfast.
Business breakfasts have been constant in the lives of the City’s jobbers and runners for several hundred years, of course, but it was The Wolseley that normalised the idea among their bosses of talking numbers over granola and kedgeree.
Where to break bread and seal deals, from FT Globetrotter, our new insider city guides for business travellers
These days, the Hermès ties have vacated by mid-morning. Lunchtimes give way to actors and media types. Then comes wave after wave of tourists for afternoon tea, before the room’s rigid class system reasserts itself for dinner service. A central horseshoe of tables is recognised as the performance area, held back for regulars or awarded to those inviting attention from gossip columns. The commoners sit on the perimeter or are placed on mezzanine levels, which, depending on the time of day, can feel like exclusivity or quarantine.
Segregation continues into the menu, where secret options reinforce the us-and-them theme. (At least three executives I know think an unlisted lobster omelette is their personal Arnold Bennett.) If The Wolseley ever needed a motto, it would be “know your place”.
So why does its appeal endure? It’s hard to say for sure. While service equals The Ritz next door, the kitchen has a tendency to misfire whenever key staff are pulled away to a new opening within the rapidly expanding empire of owners Chris Corbin and Jeremy King. Worse, there has been talk of rollouts and international franchises, which would dilute what sense of occasion the room retains. Perhaps by the time you read this, The Wolseley will be a chain, a kind of TGI Monday’s.
For the moment, however, London has nowhere to match it for conspicuous consumption. Just make sure you aim for the horseshoe, and get there before 10am.
5. Locanda Locatelli
8 Seymour St, Marylebone, London W1H 7JZ
- Good for: elegant renderings of Italian comfort food
- Not so good for: celebrity spotting. The it crowd moved elsewhere a decade ago
- FYI: its Michelin star gives the wrong idea of what to expect and has never been worn comfortably, so is a distraction best ignored
It was once the conceit of London’s high-end Italian restaurants that you were buying your lunch a plane ticket. The pasta might be no different from any family-run trattoria in Lombardy or Puglia, but the mark-ups could be justified in air miles.
Such arguments no longer hold sway. London is now full of good Italian restaurants run by people who buy locally and price gently. Yet the high-end Italian continues to proliferate, largely because high prices can always be relied upon to keep some people out.
Locanda Locatelli opened during that first phase, in 2002, but has continued to thrive in the second. Much like the food, the secret of its success is simple. Chef-patron Giorgio Locatelli has avoided any slip in quality, having resisted the urge to lever his celebrity into a worldwide brand. Ingredients are top notch, cooking is exact and faff is kept as restrained as its Michelin star will allow. Closed booths and island tables mean everyone gets the choice of hiding or being on show. There’s nothing to wow you here, which is the point.
Luxury Italian is a crowded marketplace in which survivors need a niche. Instagrammers are best served by the excellent Murano on Queen Street. Sartoria on Savile Row does elegant flavours in what looks like a cosmetic surgeon’s recovery room. Cecconi’s, a permanently buzzing all-rounder behind the Royal Academy of Arts, is for people who can’t think where else to go. Then there’s C London (once known as Cipriani, until lawyers intervened in a trademark dispute), which specialises in men who flash rolls of £50 notes and women who may or may not be their nieces.
Everywhere attracts a certain type, with the exception of Locanda Locatelli, whose type is “wealthy”. It has no niche. It has good pasta.
6. The Guinea Grill
30 Bruton Pl, Mayfair, London W1J 6NL
- Good for: steaks, ale, and losing track of which decade it is
- Not so good for: space. You might become best friends with the neighbouring table, whether you choose to or not
- FYI: women at the bar will always be served before men. The policy helps set the Guinea apart from the average Mayfair pub, which attracts no women whatsoever
There’s nowhere in the W1 postcode that carries as much goodwill as The Guinea. Upfront is a sturdy pub that would be unremarkable anywhere else in town but in Mayfair is an oasis. Down a corridor, past a steak terrarium, is a wood-panelled dining room where meat is cooked with care rather than fuss.
Guinea revels in being the opposite of fashionable. It’s a place for mixed grills, ox heart, buttered carrots and breakfasts that cross into Man v Food territory. Landlord Oisín Rogers, perhaps the only man in the hospitality trade to have never made an enemy, smooths over any problem with heroic levels of bonhomie.
Mayfair does not lack serviceable steak restaurants. There’s Goodman on Maddox Street, for people who care deeply about the difference between Wagyu and Kobe, and 34 near Grosvenor Square, for days when the Scott’s regulars want beef rather than fish. Both feature often in “London’s best steakhouse” lists, and deservedly so. Where Guinea Grill has an edge over them is the amity you take away as you waddle back along the cobbled mews towards Berkeley Square.
Feeling better about the world after paying a restaurant bill is rare anywhere; in Mayfair it’s nothing short of a miracle.
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