The first in a series of restaurant histories from writer Philippa Snow.
Glamour is a little like romantic love, in the sense that it’s best seen either in its earliest days, or at a nostalgic remove. During the tough middle period, it is easier for the bloom to leave the rose — and a rose is never as chic or suggestive of sex as an orchid is, anyway. Glamour also never quite succeeds in seducing two people the very same way, which is why it’s completely subjective; all of which is to say that in 1929, the London restaurant-bar Quaglino’s had the glamour of the very new, and that now, in the modern age, it has the slightly de-bloomed glamour of a relaunch working through its middle period.
Never mind: I happen to be a girl routinely seduced by bad taste. The flowers in Herculean vases that sit on the bar are, I’ve found from Googling and from visiting Quaglino’s once on a Thursday night, sometimes pale yellow roses, sometimes orchids, and more rarely still some kind of greenish spray. The cocktails are twelve pounds and ninety-five pence, which is West London for you. They are agreeably strong. The single evening that I spent there, I saw a number of young, savvy women looking as though they were there on the dimes of their dining companions, and a number of men who appeared to be there with their nieces, or maybe their nieces’ friends.
C’est Mayfair. When Quaglino’s was originally conceived, it was as retribution: the eponymous Quaglino, Giovanni — like the opera about famous womaniser, Don Juan — almost lost his much-loved wife to a rival restaurateur, and saw revenge as a dish best served in direct competition. Quaglino opened up in the very same neighbourhood as his wife’s lover by taking over the restaurant at the St. James’ Hotel. “He won this grudge match,” says his website-sanctioned bio, “with a combination of exceptional food and service, and by providing a fashionably late supper followed by music and dancing, but most especially [it was] Quaglino’s personality drew people to the restaurant.”
“Contemporaries,” it adds, “describe him as a man of genuine grace and kindness, rather than a mere charmer.” Whether this last part is a covert reference to his merely charming enemy, I could not say; although I can say that Quaglino’s has, since then, become the kind of place that summons up hyperbole and famous clientele in equal measure. Grace has always been a better, chicer quality than charm, which is perhaps why Giovanni’s restaurant is best known for having been the first to pay host to a twentieth-century British monarch, for the fact that Bryan Ferry once immortalised it in the lyrics of a Roxy Music song, and for the fact that everybody used to steal its Deco ashtrays.
Grace is, anyway, one word. Two more might be fun and sin, as when Quaglino’s first began to earn itself a reputation, it was as a scene and as a site of mischief, which is just the kind of thing the English upper classes like the best. Nearly all its anecdotes are also somehow decadent, illicit. Romance novelist Barbara Cartland — who knew all about fun, sin, grace, and the delicate relationship between an orchid and a rose — discovered in her oyster, whilst eating there in the 1930s, a perfect pearl. Evelyn Waugh, the author, took his mistress, Audrey, there at least once, though it did not stop his being cock-blocked after dinner. “After cocktails,” says one record of the evening, “[Evelyn] went to Quaglino's with Audrey … From dinner, Waugh went to a party. Then went round to Audrey's for another party. There he waited for hours to sleep with Audrey but 'she was too tired.'” Judy Garland held her fifth and final wedding afterparty at Quaglino’s back in 1969, though almost no one came, not even Liza, so that waiters far outnumbered guests.
It was our own Queen, Elizabeth II, who became the first or first-known modern Royal to eat in public at a restaurant there, mere hours after being crowned in 1956. (The joke is that she ordered Eggs Royale; the truth is not on record.) Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy and Edina called it, in the 90s and as redesigned by Terence Conran, “Quags” — as in: “a little mosey down Bond Street, a little sniff around Gucci, sidle up to Ralph Lauren, pass through Browns and on to Quag’s for a light lunch,” which is as perfect a description of the role Quaglino’s played in Mayfair’s culture then as it is possible to find. The ashtrays that I mentioned, just as much a part of modern-day Quaglino’s myth as cigarettes are part of cocktail hour (in the eyes of those of us, at least, who do not vape and will not give up smoking), were supposed to be at one time London’s most-shoplifted object. Split in two and smooth as, say, the fender of a Porsche, it stands to reason that the three-Martini-lunch crowd might be interested.
“The Quaglino’s ashtray,” says a piece about the mass craze at The Independent, “with its metallic circle cut in two by the elegant tail of the ‘Q’, was a hit — a little too much of a hit. Soon it had the tag “iconic” attached, and with that, the trouble started. By the time the [relaunched incarnation of the] restaurant was 10 years old, more than 25,000 of Quaglino’s ashtrays had gone ‘missing.’” They have since been phased out, although Lindsay Lohan — in her own way a rebooted take on old-school glamour, and a rose with thorns — enquired just last year about acquiring one. She left the restaurant empty-handed. “Lindsay told the bar girl that she was a huge fan of Absolutely Fabulous,” The Sun reported, “and she wanted one for home…Lindsay was politely told there were none left, and hadn’t been for some time, but at least she had the decency to ask.”
Decency! A novel concept for a Mayfair restaurant, and a happily unknown one at Quaglino’s since the 1920s. At its centre, there is one great set piece: a long staircase, winding down from overhead, and made for entrances and exits. Famous people are, like living Deco ashtrays, dressing for its theatre-set. People-watchers are accordingly in seventh heaven. SO NOSTALGIC, said the headline of one piece I read about the restaurant — SO VOLUPTUOUS, SO HIP, as if Quaglino’s weren’t a dining spot at all, but rather a bona fide celebrity: a Marilyn, a Liz, a Lindsay. In the bathroom, which is viciously and monochromatically striped, like dazzle camouflage, you are meant — I’m guessing — to take selfies, which is not surprising in a spot that so adores the gaze; the heat of observation can be like the heat in Saint Tropez, a balm. Quaglino’s is a place for looking, being looked at.
Food and drink could not be anything but secondary to the mood.