An old friend, recently arrived in London from Sydney, was sitting comfortably on a leather-padded bench in one of Brunswick House Café’s booths; a glass of Montlouis white wine in her hand and a smile on her face. “This place is fantastic,” she exclaimed.
And the view certainly was. There was a history lesson of chandeliers and lights hanging from the ceiling; mirrors, prints, paintings and the odd bust or three on the walls. At one end of the room, a table for four had been laid up behind a red rope, and behind it “$€X” was emblazoned in red bulbs from a Soho establishment. Welcome to dinner at one of the most memorable places to eat in London.
Unlike any other restaurant I can think of, lunch here could prove far more costly than dinner. This is because Brunswick House has been home for the past 30 years to Lassco, which its founder Adrian Amos accurately describes as London’s prime resource for architectural antiques, salvage and curiosities. It is these very particular items that furnish the café and which could turn a visit here during the day into quite a costly affair. (The prices of Lassco’s wares – including cast-iron radiators, baths and toilet seats, old Tube posters, trade posters, fireplaces, street signs, the odd mounted buffalo head – far exceed any lunch bill.)
While Lassco occupies a three-storey Georgian building (built for the Duke of Brunswick in the 1770s), the café is located next door in a single-storey affair that was built around 1900 as a meeting place, concert and lecture hall for the members of the local railway union. Hence its extremely good acoustics, even when full, and its stage.
The café is the creation of Jackson Boxer, 26, part of a family whose interest in good food goes back at least two generations. His grandmother is Arabella, the esteemed cookery writer; his father Charlie runs Italo, the excellent grocery store in Bonnington Square a mile away; and his partner is his brother Frank, who for the past couple of years has run the highly successful Frank’s Café and Campari Bar as a pop-up in a car park in Peckham, south-east London.
I have eaten lunch here but not dinner. Half of the stage has been cut away to make way for a modest kitchen, where chef Nick Balfe is in charge. The menu is in keeping with the best young British relaxed approach to food. It is short, tersely written, comprehensive and fairly priced with no main course dish over £10. Because there were five of us and the other four’s principal interest was catching up with each other’s news, I ordered for the table, omitting the more mundane charcuterie and rare roast topside of beef, to leave 10 other dishes, a mixture of starters and small mains.
These packed terrific flavours. A strong venison and prune terrine alongside a more subtle dish of marinated mackerel with blackberries; four vegetable-based dishes: romanesco cauliflower with Berkswell cheese; beetroot, juniper and goat’s curd; black kale and anchovy; and a macaroni cheese served inside half a squash. Finally, a hare and bacon pie alongside a bowl of spicy cuttlefish, chorizo and fino sherry. With very British desserts – quince and almond tart, lemon posset and a pear and chocolate pudding – and three bottles of particularly well-chosen and fairly priced wine my bill was £206 without service.
But most impressive for me was to watch Boxer, slight and dressed in black, working the room, delivering stylish service accompanied by an enthusiastic team, having created a restaurant with limited capital. He initially approached Amos in the summer of 2010 to open the espresso bar in the front part of the former concert hall, backed by the £2,000 he had saved from tips working in various restaurants across London. As business prospered so did the range of what Boxer offered: hot items at lunch, such as a slow-cooked ham hock with beans; cocktail and wine lists; and, most importantly, the cash flow to fit out the kitchen and create his vision of a restaurant.
The café brings with it for Amos and Lassco not just more visitors and a new income stream, based on an agreed percentage of the café’s sales, but also a genuinely integrated partnership as Boxer and his team now cater for private events in the main house’s smoking room, parlour and library. I am sure the Duke of Brunswick would have been amused.
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Brunswick House Café
30 Wandsworth Road, Vauxhall, London SW8 2LG, 020 7720 2926