From a major chain operator, a relaunch of a classic Victorian restaurant site in Soho as a Gallic bar/brasserie; food and service are above ‘chain’ standards, but the new décor doesn’t ‘work’.
e should be grateful for the survival of Kettners. Even after its latest relaunch, its Soho premises offer what’s quite possibly the most authentic evocation of what a restaurant of Victorian times might have felt like. (The only real competition is Regent Street’s Café Royal W1, currently being incorporated into a de luxe hotel, in the course of redevelopment.)
Kettners was founded in 1867 by a former chef to Napoleon III (who ended his days, after capture by the Prussians in 1870, in exile in Kent). You can still see the signs: the main corner dining room retains panelling in a style still often seen in Parisian buildings from the days of Baron Haussmann.
It’s not just in Victorian times, however, that Kettners was of some note. In the 1980s, Kettners was an essential place to know about if you were on a West End night out. With its tinkling piano and its louche grandeur, it offered a sort of cosy refuge, especially for the young and (relatively) impecunious. The food – essentially a PizzaExpress menu plus burgers – was a bit beside the point.
Having ‘drifted’ in the noughties, the place now has now been given a major scrub up by its proprietors Gondola Holdings (PizzaExpress, ASK, Zizzi). Given this sort of backing, the first surprise is that this is to no extent a pizzeria nowadays. It trades as a brasserie and champagne bar, and a Gallic one too.
The second surprise is that the food is rather good. In fact, if you’re looking for staples such as an onion soup gratiné, or a simple tarte, or a (somewhat fancified) crème brûlée, you won’t find them done much better anywhere else in London. Even the bread was pretty decent, and the espresso was exceptional.
Service is charming too, and, befitting the building, it seems to come with real character. But here’s the rub: the latest fit-out is just not right. We’re led to believe that it’s supposed to be female-friendly. Really? With its white bentwood chairs and its bare-bulb lighting, the whole impression is too cold and Scandinavian to be considered friendly to persons of either sex. And what’s with the long marble counter? Is it supposed to be hommage à Philippe Starck? It just looks plain odd. And, most importantly, where’s the piano gone?
None of this is irreparable, but we hope Gondola will fine-tune the décor of what’s potentially something of a revived institution. At the moment, it’s only for a quick daytime bite – rather than for enjoying the pricier and more ambitious main dishes (which we didn’t sample) – that the ambience of the place seems to any extent suited.