Damien Mccrystal

Sorry, traditional fare’s off

The Savoy Grill is no longer the place to be seen. Damien McCrystal on the sad decline of a once great restaurant

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Nobody I know goes to the Savoy Grill any more. It used to be a place to be seen – probably the most important such restaurant in the business community. The staff were dressed formally, delivering a discreet and respectful service. Customers were addressed by their titles, where such existed. The food was reminiscent of country-house cooking – or, sometimes, school dinners – and seldom surprised the palate. The wine list was deeply traditional, with, of course, a heavy emphasis on claret. No one snapped their fingers at waiters, because a politely raised eyebrow would do the job. No one turned up in T-shirts and shorts, and no one brought young children. The Grill was a glorious throwback to the England before multiculturalism, classless societies, royal exposés and general uncertainty. And its proximity to the City gave it access to a large body of people – the largest left in Britain – who still held such values in high esteem.

It was never, contrary to newspaper reports, known as the 'City's canteen'. (I suspect that was a throwaway line in a diary column or some such many years ago, picked up and used to the point of ubiquity by Savoy press officers, feature writers and restaurant reviewers alike.) But it was a grand place to impress one's associates, particularly if the ma–tre d', Angelo Maresca, knew you by name, and most particularly if you were well enough established to have your own regular table. The most sought-after tables were those with banquettes diagonally across the room from the entrance. Perhaps they achieved their prestigious reputation because they offered greater privacy or because those seated there had a sweeping view of the whole room. At any rate, they were the tables where important men – former prime ministers, leading company chairmen, senior City figures and so forth – were placed. Some businessmen would wait years to have their name permanently lodged against a table on Angelo's not-so-secret table plan. It was truly a mark of status within the relatively small community of customers.

The number of seriously important men (and, very occasionally, women) who used the Grill often was, of course, limited. It was more popular with the younger ones on their way up, most of them working in the City, who might bring provincial clients there to impress them. Afterwards, they would go back to their offices and laugh with colleagues about how the client had turned up in a grey suit and brown shoes or, far worse, a brown suit and grey shoes. Such attitudes, though never articulated to the client, would reinforce the City's feelings of superiority over the corporate community, which would hopefully be wrong-footed enough to meet all the fee demands being made.

Oddly enough, it achieved its modern, place-to-be-seen reputation – over the past 20-odd years – by default. In the early 1980s, when insider dealing was still (despite having been made illegal in 1981) regarded as a perk of the job, informed gossip was the City's most highly prized commodity. If you arranged a meeting in one of the very few restaurants which then existed in the Square Mile – or even in your firm's private dining-rooms – it would be noticed and gossiped about, quite possibly encouraging the unwelcome attentions of speculators. So people started going to the Grill for a bit of privacy. The net curtains and mirrored doors helped foster the idea that it was a safe place for a meeting. Once word got round, though, everyone wanted to be there, to appear as if they were doing something important, even if they weren't.

And then, in 1983, Angelo Maresca was made ma–tre d'. This proved to be a stroke of genius, for Maresca (whose real first name, Agnello, was unpronounceable for the hotel group's chairman, Sir Hugh Wontner) knew how to make customers feel important. Until then, the group had operated on the basis that ma–tres d' should be large, imposing men who conveyed the grandeur of their hotels. Maresca is no more than about 5ft 2ins, which, combined with a degree of dignified servility, conveyed the impression that the customers were terribly grand. They loved it, and the 1980s were boom years for the Grill.

But things started to change in the 1990s. Lunch went out of fashion as the puritan American influence swept the City. Going out to long, boozy afternoon sessions with clients was officially frowned upon, and huge, extravagant expenses claims were harder to sign off. Changes in the structure of the securities industry, designed precisely to weaken the culture of nepotism and 'inducements', were introduced.

At the same time, things were changing dramatically at group level for the Savoy. The long battle to hold off the acquisitive intentions of Trusthouse Forte waned and finally was lost. Forte itself was taken over, and in the late 1990s the Savoy Group was sold to an American investment company called Blackstone, whose activities range from private equity through property investment to corporate debt. It saw a gently fading British company which might be revivable but which, in any case, owned some of the finest property sites in the world. It set about the process of updating its new assets.

First to go was the Causerie at Claridge's. This was a little smorgasbord restaurant which had been fashionable among minor European royals and aristocrats in the two or three decades after the second world war. It offered free food and charged only for the drinks – a popular innovation among increasingly impoverished toffs. But they hadn't been using it much during the 1980s and 1990s, so in 1999 Blackstone replaced it with an American-style cocktail bar. Although there were grumbles, the new bar was a great success and encouraged Blackstone to embark on a full-scale revolution. The result was the joint venture with the aggressive, brilliant and somewhat chippy young chef Gordon Ramsay. Between them, they have torn down all the old edifices and erected in their place modern restaurants aimed specifically at the 'foodie' generation.

Since then Ramsay has gutted and remodelled the main restaurant at Claridge's and done likewise at the Connaught. But neither of these changes was nearly as controversial as the wholesale remodelling of the Savoy Grill earlier this year, introduced by Ramsay's young protégé and business partner, Marcus Wareing. All the promises that were initially made to reassure the regulars have been broken. Wareing, with no visible sign of irony, has replaced the famous trolley from which meat was carved at the table with a small wooden carving board on wheels. The dishes, though they may look on the menu to be similar to the old fare, have been changed beyond recognition. Steak-and-kidney pudding, for instance, is no longer the feast of one's youth but a ramekin-sized pat of nouvelle cuisine. The pork belly comes without crackling and has been smoked to resemble bacon (I shudder to think what will happen when game birds come into season). In addition, customers are allowed in without coats and ties. A baby in a high chair was spotted there one recent lunchtime. The new customer base is West End, and tourist-oriented, a cross-section of New Britain. There are far more women. Lord Hanson is horrified, as is Sir John Kemp-Welch, both of whom have registered their horror in the letters pages of the Financial Times. Even Angelo Maresca has resigned. The old clientele feels somewhat betrayed and bereft, as if a part of its special culture has been taken away – another nail in the coffin.

Ramsay and Wareing give the impression – like Blackstone and, indeed, the British government – that they do not care a damn about anything which smacks of tradition and/or nostalgia. If that means offending a dwindling group of upper-middle-classers, why should these two dynamic chefs or their Americ an bosses – who probably believe they can never gain acceptance by this group – be bothered? The problem is that from a business point of view they are probably right. The Savoy Group just wasn't filling its old restaurants and something drastic had to be done. Economics, rather than chippiness, is driving this revolution. It feels rather as it must have done when England's stately homes were pulled down or sold off for commercial use. It's terribly, terribly sad, but inevitable.