words Chris Zacharia
Quaglino’s, a sprawling basement of old-school glamour founded in the 1920s, is one of those rare restaurants with its own folklore. Gazing across its newly-renovated, dazzlingly ornate dining room, it’s not hard to believe that Evelyn Waugh enjoyed eating here.
Or that Queen Elizabeth II became the first reigning British monarch to dine in a public restaurant upon having lunch here in 1956. Of course she did. Quaglino’s – Quag’s, darling – is that kind of place.
Even the story of its conception is infused with intrigue. Legend has it that Giovanni ‘John’ Quaglino, while working as a head waiter at his friend John Sovrani’s restaurant on Jermyn Street in Piccadilly, quit his job after Sovrani became too intimate with his wife. In a thrillingly fitting twist, his restaurant, Quaglino’s, became much more popular than Sovrani’s, which closed in 1931. This illicit love affair unintentionally spawned a restaurant which went on to be unusually favoured by royalty, from the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, to abdication-friendly King Edward VIII. The more you look into Quaglino’s, the more you get the sense that it’s all too preposterous to be true, from world-renowned romance novelist Barbara Cartland finding a real pearl in her oyster to John Profumo and his wife making a defiant show of togetherness after the scandal with which his name will forever be associated broke in 1963. It’s like some high-society version of The Old Vic in Eastenders, the stories too fanciful to be true.
But this stately narrative, this champagne-soaked mythology of star-studded theatrics, is only half the story. Quaglino’s may sometimes have the air of an elaborate recital, a restaurant performing the most eye-poppingly realistic impression of itself, its jazzy interwar glamour gracefully toned down, half-embarrassed and half-thrilled by its own pre-eminence. And yet you won’t find self-aggrandizing references to its fame, either. Despite its heritage, Quaglino’s goes about the business of feeding people in a way which suggests that it wants to make a name for itself all over again.
Certainly it looks the part. Stroll down the enormous flared staircase and witness the majesty of the glistening curved bar, shining gold and draped with – weirdly – artificial plants. With a tidy little stage at the front, it’s almost like an old-fashioned ballroom, but there’s a darker edge of late twentieth-century indulgence which gives the place a Brett Easton Ellis feel. Maybe it’s the DJ booth, with its insinuation that dining out must be accompanied with a professional DJ curating your meal’s soundtrack. Maybe it’s the abstract art placed high on the walls, bringing to mind both Alexander McQueen and, somehow, the Rocky Horror Show. Or maybe it’s the porticoed glass ceiling, reminiscent of some Bauhaus-era Mitteleuropean train station. Either way, it works: despite the enormity of the dining room, it manages to retain an intimacy, a cosy informality, a kind of convivial charm which makes eating here feel far more informal than it might sound. Credit to the waiting staff, whose unfailing friendliness spreads the easy-going vibe.
As part of their £3 million refreshment, Quags have launched a new brunch menu. Sure, every greasy spoon in the city is offering brunch these days, but London’s latest love of the breakfast-lunch hybrid is an especially natural fit here. After all, notwithstanding its pre-war heyday, Quaglino’s is remembered for ushering in a kind of permanent yuppie yuletide in the ‘80s, becoming so utterly synonymous with the hedge-fund hounds that it became a regular comic staple of bourgeois-spoofing sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Brunch at Quags just sounds right.
But during our gloriously protracted, close-to-three-hour-long Saturday brunch blowout, Quaglino’s makes a formidably good case for itself as a restaurant of serious merit. This isn’t some tired old punchline filled with footballer’s wives and confused former Field Marshalls. Genuinely excellent dishes are to be had here – and at surprisingly reasonable prices.
For all its gilded moments in high society history, Quaglino’s displays an admirably egalitarian attitude to booze – their ‘bottomless bubbles’ gives you limitless Prosecco throughout your meal for a generous £15. With a remarkably attentive team of waiting staff ready to dose you whenever your drink dips so much as an inch from the brim, Quaglino’s makes a surprising late-day dash for the title of the most efficient place to get toasted in London. Two well-stocked bars are also available if Prosecco’s not your thing.
Regardless of the drinks, it’s the food that truly impresses, giving the greatest assurance that this is a top restaurant in its own right. Choose two courses for £21, or three for £27, from a selection which floats across the starscape of high-end European cuisine. The brunch dishes, big on eggs and bread, are an excellent way to start. Quaglino’s does particular justice to Eggs Benedict, a dish with its own celebrated heritage, brought to life here by a lively and lasting hollandaise, exquisitely grilled tomatoes and salty, tangy curls of prosciutto. French toast – not eggy bread, but a brioche lashed with agave syrup and domes of fresh apricot partnered with dollops of creme fraiche – glides gently between sweet and savoury.
It’s all competent, composed and delicious, but it’s the second courses that really demand our full attention. There’s a great deal to enjoy here, not least in a heap of beef tartare. One of those endearingly antiquated dishes synonymous with an outdated kind of faded luxury, beef tartare is unfashionable these days, but Quaglino’s incarnation makes you wonder why. A hefty mound of hand-chopped raw beef, enlivened by the usual smattering of capers, parsley flecks and a golden egg yolk, it’s bursting with a rich tanginess, its texture wholly yielding. Full marks.
The rest of the dishes confirm that there is a very good kitchen at work here. Roasted pork fillet is an excellent demonstration of how best to cook the meat, its gelatinous fatty seams easily prised, with a replenishing coolness added by the welcome presence of a rich pea puree. Shards of black pudding and pancetta heighten the irresistible umami tang. Grilled salmon fillet in sauce romesco draws big smiles from a handful of simple flavours, amplified by clever composition. The salmon is as delicate and flaky as you’d hope, without sacrificing the essential chunky meatiness of the fish.
Desserts are similarly rich. A white chocolate and vanilla cheesecake is the sole disappointment, its flavours too cautious and distant, the white chocolate faint verging on undetectable. But a Valrhona tropila chocolate fondant with orange and cardamom ice cream is outrageous, an unprovoked detonation of incalculably rich cocoa. It’s as disarming a demonstration of the power of chocolate as you’re likely to find, ably partnered with an intelligent scoop of soothing ice cream, its notes of citrus and spice slicing clean through the viscous fondant. But that’s not all. A coconut sorbet is unexpectedly delightful, simultaneously rejuvenating and decadent, magically bouncy and light. It’s the kind of food which leaves you smiling and sated.
That’s the thing about Quaglinos. Despite the fables of lavish nights with big stars, despite the exclusiveness of its subterranean Mayfair hideaway setting, it’s actually a pretty straightforward place. Great food, great service. You may be eating in a veritable museum of London socialite tradition, but you wouldn’t know it. Especially not through the prices. You can eat very well here and leave only £30 lighter. Not bad for the Queen’s old haunt.
words Chris Zacharia