Quaglino’s is an ancient subterranean brasserie in St James’s, a district clinging to the 18th century with cadaverous fingers. It was founded in 1929 by -Giovanni Quaglino, who once wrote a book called The Complete Hostess; do not buy a haddock that weighs over 2lbs, he counsels, among other things. Quaglino’s is called a ‘grande dame’ by the sort of critic who confuses ‘grande’ with louche. Quaglino’s initially catered to posh idiots who thought they were ‘edgy’ because they listened to jazz during the abdication crisis. The Queen came once — the first time a reigning monarch had dined at a restaurant — and Princess Margaret repeatedly, but the Queen did not return; louche, then.
Quaglino’s slid and was resuscitated by Terence Conran in 1993 with an ‘altar of crustaceans’, cigarette girls — yuk! — and notorious ‘Q’ ash-trays repeatedly stolen by customers; now it is resuscitated again by a conglomerate called D&D, which owns restaurants called things like Iconic (Japan) and Plateau (Canary Wharf). Quaglino’s is, therefore, a vampire restaurant near Piccadilly, which I like because Count Dracula, ever the postcode snob, had a ‘malodorous’ house at 347 Piccadilly; and here is his local, a brasserie that won’t die.
We pass a doorman, a bullied species of macho forced into fancy dress, and go down the first of two stair-cases. At the bottom is a bar with animal-skin chairs, which may be fake, red leather foot stools, and a gas fire with tiny flames overlooking the dining room; then another staircase, which is famous, because people think they are watched as they descend. They are mad to do so — who looks at other people now that iPhones exist? Busby Berkeley is dead and he will not return.
The dining room is huge, with a bar at the centre and a stage at the back. It is dim, like Grendel’s cave, although the central light fitting looks like an enormous solar panel; it is not a chandelier to swing from, although you might, given enough Velcro and a ladder, get stuck face-up on it. -Diners at lunchtime are, in this order: local -workers hiding from their colleagues; tourists; adulterers hiding from themselves. The toffs do come — Prince Harry was apparently spotted eating something, maybe his own tooth — but at night, when there is singing until 3 a.m. (Not a sing-song. Singing.)
Oh, I like it, but I am from the suburbs. There is something lovely about nightclubs — and Quaglino’s is a nightclub that serves food — in the daylight hours, something sticky and dusty and remote; everything in a nightclub in daylight feels deviant, even waving. It reminds me of when I worked in Options nightclub and cinema in -Kingston-upon-Thames in 1991 and wandered through the club after school breathing in the ghosts of Silk Cut, feeling intensely pre–adulterous. The fact that Kingston-upon-Thames was beyond the door only made Options feel more special. Perhaps that I why I like the restaurants I do — prole palaces for suburban depressives. I am looking for Options.
The food is small (we have the set menu) and good, but not exciting. Smoked salmon is sharp, tasty; pappardelle with aubergine is silky, rich; chicken with dauphinois potatoes is excellent, although pudding (a chocolate cake) is destroyed by the presence of mint. The food is not the point of Quaglino’s, which is a hotel room for people who cannot afford hotel rooms in St James’s and so come here. D&D spent £3 million on a refurbishment that feels like the inside of Joan Collins’s knickers, and it is none the worse for it.
Quaglino’s, 16 Bury Street, London SW1Y 6AJ, tel: 020 7930 6767.