By Liz Hatton
I think it’s fair to say that I was the last of my friends and colleagues to have crossed the threshold and passed beyond the velvet rope of Dean Street Townhouse, the restaurant/bar/hotel in the heart of Soho. Since it opened it has become a firmly established venue on the Soho scene, and it feels like pretty much every stylish member of London’s creative set has succumbed to its charms. So, when I found out that the fabulously acerbic Sandra Bernhard was in town, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to put things right. I booked front row tickets to the show and a table at Dean Street Townhouse for a pre-theatre dinner.
I had booked a table at 5.30pm, and planned to arrive at 5pm, just to make absolutely certain that we wouldn’t have to fight for a seat at the bar – tales of friends being turned away at weekends and office chucking-out time thanks to a crush for cocktails have been heard regularly, and I wanted to make sure we had a chance to leisurely sup our Champagne before the sharp elbows of the media crowd arrived. I also can’t bear rushing a new food find, so I’d made sure we’d have plenty of time for a leisurely meal before heading off to see the show. Despite my precision planning, I’d been outmanoeuvred by the chattering classes: the room was already heaving with a cool, eclectic Saturday crowd, supping on Champagne, reading the weekend papers, or indulging in a decadent looking afternoon tea with their over-dressed teenage children. At first glance there wasn’t a free stool, let alone standing space at the long zinc-topped mahogany bar which runs the length of the dining room, but a kind and very suave bespectacled man kindly moved along to make room for us. Which pleasantly summed up the feel of this place… an exclusive yet friendly club. Babington-in-the-city. I guess that’s the idea.
This is the first joint venture between Nick Jones and restaurateur Richard Caring, who is now the majority shareholder in the Soho House group, along with his other interests that include, amongst others, the Ivy, J Sheekey and Harry’s Bar. Dean Street Townhouse is basically the fine tuning of a massively successful, tried and tested formula. The Soho House group has, without doubt, created the coolest, most coveted private membership joints around the world. But, it has to be said (with the notable exception of the wonderful Pizza East, my all time favourite pizzeria), the food offering is generally pretty average, sometimes bordering on unforgiveable. So, with Caring now helping Jones at the helm, the combination of the intrinsic coolness of Soho House, with the restaurant quality of The Ivy and you must, surely have a winning formula? Well, yes. And no.
Let’s start with the yes. The venue is faultless and cool in the way only Jones can do. It’s a clever mix of traditional Georgian splendour with five-star luxury; it’s clubby (in the gentleman’s club sense of the word) yet edgy; it’s brand-new but designed to look and feel like it’s been here forever. It has a sense of a place designed for decadence and naughtiness, yet it’s comforting and soothing. The lighting is perfect. The acoustics are perfect. The staff are pretty close to perfect – attentive and knowledgeable, if not a little bit overbearing in their enthusiasm (our lovely young waiter insisted on kissing us on both cheeks before we left – sweet but a bit much for some, perhaps!). The atmosphere is spot on – there is an almost palpable sense of excitement in the air, as if something exceptional is about to happen, or that showbiz royalty just might walk through the door at any moment – and regularly do, in reality. As a venue I loved it. And I haven’t even seen the rooms, which are, by all accounts beautifully finished and exceptional value for money considering their location. So a big thumbs up so far.
And the menu was promising – soothing, comfort, nursery food harking back to the 1970s and travelling right through to 2011, with key era-defining dishes, sparsely described. This is taken a little too far with their ‘mince and potatoes’ (that’s it: mince and potatoes. Some might call this succinct, for me it was undersold). So this is proper French bistro fayre, if that French bistro was born and raised in England. Steak and chips, fish and chips, macaroni cheese, piccalillis, pressed meats, roast chicken. You get the idea. At first glance it doesn’t look too pricey, either. But that’s before you realise that in order to have a proper, belly-filling meal, you need to add on your veg and accoutrements. This sends a small (and I mean virtually starter size) dish of halibut and morels over the £35 mark. £35! For a slither of fish and a few mushrooms. Crikey. Even for London, even in such a fantastic venue, this is just too much money. Though, the fish was delicious – perfectly cooked and seasoned – the cost left a nasty taste. My companion’s fish and chips, however, was a huge success and good value for money– comfort food at its best. Lovely, flaky fish, good (although, possibly, not hand-cut) chips, marrowfat peas (naturally) and tangy tartare sauce.
The starter of pork belly was good. Lovely, dense, full-flavoured meat, with a zingy chutney. The only criticism here was the lack of crackling – a matter of taste perhaps, and my dining companion thought the dish no worse for this. My smoked haddock soufflé was the standout dish of the night – classic, comfort cooking at its best. Deep with flavour, silky smooth. Completely delicious and utterly memorable.
We should have had pudding. We certainly planned to have pudding, but we were pushing it with the time. No blame whatsoever for this can be laid with the restaurant. The timing and delivery of the food and the swiftness of the waiting staff were without fault. It was simply that we were enjoying ourselves so much, we hadn’t noticed the time. So we had no choice but to forgo the very tempting desserts – sherry trifle and treacle sponge with custard have already been earmarked for our next visit. You can’t go wrong with a sherry trifle.
And despite my minor gripes, there will definitely be a next time – I’ll just stick to the basics. Dean Street Townhouse is my kind of place. OK, so the food isn’t Michelin standard, but I’m pretty sure they’re not aiming for this. In fact, they seem to be going out of their way to avoid a visit from the tyre makers. So what they are aiming for? I’d imagine it’s good food that can soak up a great cocktail, a convivial atmosphere with the odd celeb propping up the bar, stunning surroundings and to create a place that people want to come back to again and again. And they have, most certainly, achieved this.
Dean Street Townhouse, 69 – 71 Dean Street, London, W1D 3SE
Tel: +44 207 434 1775