Sometimes I fret that Soho House & Co is doing to this column what it does to London. It places its smooth tentacles in my prose and suddenly the column has a pointy beard and is playing table tennis, while doing something monstrous in advertising. But I have no choice. I cannot hide in ghostly seafood bars for ever. (Next time, Bentley’s.) Because now Soho House & Co has invaded Kettner’s, which has duly gone the way of the Odeon West End in Leicester Square, a lovely art deco cinema that these days is only a void. It will become something else — a hotel and maybe a cinema again — but it will remain a void. The transformation of Soho into the kind of advertorial you find in an airport lounge in Dubai goes on. It is flat; a once fascinating pop-up book, closed for ever.
If you were a cocaine addict in the 1990s and liked to circle Soho chewing your own lips like a malfunctioning shark, you would pass Kettner’s at least three times before dawn. It is in Romilly Street, a quiet road full of tall Georgian houses haunted by men asking schoolgirls for sex in exchange for money. Well, that was my experience but I was only 14 so maybe I dreamt it. The great brick lump of the Palace Theatre is nearby, like Edward VII’s big bottom, but singing.
Kettner’s was established in 1867 by August Kettner, who’s supposed to have been Napoleon III’s chef. (I wonder if he hated Napoleon III and ran away to London.) It hosted Oscar Wilde and later became a Pizza Express with cold white walls and black railings, magical and faintly unknowable, like a KFC at the palace of Versailles, or a Burger King in a Dickens novel. But Soho is extraordinary like that, or rather it used to be, before the porn cinema became a steakhouse and the non-porn cinema became a hotel and the district became a theme park for suburban idiots in fashionable sunglasses.
Now that Kettner’s belongs to Soho House & Co, it is a restaurant and 33-room hotel with self-declared ‘tiny’ rooms from £255 a night. There is a definite masochistic edge to all incursions into Soho House, which names its beauty products after cows. This is not funny; it is, for a leisure experience, quite self-hating.
Kettner’s has been renamed Kettner’s Townhouse — ‘a home to aristocrats and creatives since 1867’ — and it joins the nearby Dean Street Townhouse, which I like, because it does bacon sandwiches for £6.50 and I once saw Matthew Modine there. Soho House & Co also has members’ clubs in Greek Street and Dean Street, and a bad restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue called Cafe Monico.
I like dentists, but I don’t yearn for a world populated solely by dentists. And I don’t yearn for a Soho that is all House because, if it is, what is it for? I also don’t think Oscar Wilde would care to be called a ‘creative’. He is lucky he is dead. Kettner’s was going to be part of Soho House nearby, but the owners changed their minds and kept the name. This, then, is technically a reprieve but now the dough balls have been exiled, what does Kettner’s look like? A brasserie in a labyrinth, is the answer — glossy, soulless, generic.
It is slightly art deco, slightly Second Empire, and slightly English country house. Soho House call it ‘affordable glamour’ but it is nothing of the kind, unless you are Swiss.
We eat, in a shining parody of a dining room: a fillet of beef, a steak tartare, a steak haché and an omelette Arnold Bennett — haddock and parmesan. It is all sleek but it cannot compensate for the ruin of central London’s most interesting district. Kettner’s lives but only in name. Kettner’s has fallen.