A relaunched St James’s classic offering a decent ‘Big Night Out’ experience at pretty reasonable prices; dishes were inconsistent on our early-days visit, but those who choose carefully can eat well.
Quag’s’ – a vast restaurant of some 300 seats, hidden away in the heart of St James’s – has, since its opening in the ’20s, always had the potential to be a special sort of place. In the ’50s, the Queen went, which was as rare a mark of recognition then as it would be today.
The site had various owners over the years, and was relaunched by Conran Restaurants in 1993 – a brave move when there was no West End restaurant ‘scene’ in the way people now take for granted. It has remained in the same ownership (now under the name of D&D London) ever since.
Conran, or Sir Terence as he subsequently became, certainly knew a bit about marketing, and the glamour of this vast restaurant, – and the cigarette girls, of course – soon made it the talk of the town. Perhaps he was too successful – in our 1993 guide, one reporter was already sniffing that “the hype hit the suburbs so fast that they have taken over”.
And so began a long period of decline and, it seemed, neglect. By 2009, the guide was describing every aspect of the restaurant as “embarrassing”; in more recent years, we began explicitly to call for a relaunch.
And lo and behold! Out has gone the rather spare and ’90s interior, and in comes a dark and clubby feel which is much more congenial – when the band kicked off (around 10.30), the transition felt entirely natural. So does the fact that the uniforms of the friendly staff all seem to incorporate some element of (literal) spangle – it’s rather as if this heart-of-SW1 spot has recognised from the beginning that its future lies in the suburbs, and has decided honestly to embrace it.
In that context, the menu is appropriate, in the sense that there’s nothing new or interesting on it, but it reads enticingly enough, and includes some quite reasonably-priced dishes. The bread rolls and the starters set a consistently good note: a lobster velouté, for example, had an impressive depth of flavour.
Meaty mains up-and-down – a rib eye and a pork belly dish were approved, whereas the duck was chewy and the venison rather lacking in taste. The only pudding we had space for, a Crème Catalane as it was described, was a touch sickly. But the espresso was much better than at many more obviously foodie establishments. It’s early days, and only time will tell whether our glass was half-full or half-empty.
The wine list is a bit of a disappointment – how odd that a restaurant with such a history boasts a list on which most bottles are barely out of nappies! – but at least it kicks off sub-£20. Well done for that.
So, should you go? Well, the presence of Prince Harry at an adjoining table suggests that Quag’s is again going to have a moment in the sun, at least as seen through the lenses of the paparazzi. Only history will relate how long that moment can last.