Any text about a classic or historic restaurant, a “legacy” venue visited by recognisable names in arts and literature and culture, necessarily has to contend with the fact of diners’ rose-coloured glasses. Arguably, the aching paucity of 2017 has made such misty-eyed nostalgia even harder to resist in the new year: sexual scandals, the threat of nuclear war, the gig economy, male celebrity monsters, faltering political negotiations, and — in the minds of middle-aged newspaper columnists, at least — the sudden popularity of the fidget spinner all conspired to spell “disaster” in large, scarlet letters. Never mind that the past was often, in fact, no better or more soothing than the present; nor that the past was definitely mired in far greater inequality and patriarchal and-or-economic mess. As with a love affair that ended suddenly, the sweeter parts endure in the hearts and minds of the left-behind.
And so to Kettner’s: an age-old and venerable Soho dining spot whose founder, Auguste Kettner, acted as a chef to Napoleon III. It first opened in 1867, but since then has undergone a few big metamorphoses. Jay Rayner — de rigeur to cite when writing anything about a classic London restaurant as a) he is, in the world of restaurant criticism, his own kind of London institution, and b) they seem very much his unabashedly indulgent, fatty, boozy, velveteen thing — railed at the transformation of the place ten years ago from a pizzeria with incongruously old-school, bougie fixings (“chandeliers and thick carpets and a pianist…a champagne bar, and linen on the tables and a bunch of private rooms”) into the more expected “modern bloody brasserie.” “In the years after graduation, when I was impoverished,” he wrote in 2008, “I used to go there a lot with my wife-to-be, loving the fact that you could feel special on the cheap…I came to regard the place as practically a social service.”
“The wonderful old Kettner’s is dead,” he added. “Rest in peace dear thing.” Reports of Kettner’s death have now been, as Mark Twain might say if he were for some unknown reason weighing in on the fate of a London restaurant, greatly exaggerated more than once — a cursory Google search of the restaurant name throws up: “Goodbye, Kettner’s: Soho icon closes its doors after 149 years” (The Evening Standard, 2016), “Kettner’s is back! Soho party house returns following revamp” (The Evening Standard, 2018), and the aforementioned Rayner mope, with the dramatic headline: “Jay Rayner mourns the passing of a culinary landmark.”
To come back from the dead is not unusual for a dining establishment, especially one with a heritage that can be easily repurposed into a new narrative. Last month, Kettner’s came back once again aiming to be a more glamorous incarnation of its former self (not without complaints against its disowning of all former staff members) complete with the addition of an appended “Townhouse” title, and under the ownership of Nick Jones’ Soho House group. “It’s all about affordable glamour,” said Jones. “I showed Kirsty [Young, the broadcaster and Jones’s wife] around Kettner’s Townhouse, and she said: ‘This is definitely the sort of place you’ll take people you want to sleep with rather than people you work with.’” The interior, with its champagne bar’s mosaic floors and its buff-grey leather stool upholstery and its upstairs boudoirs, certainly makes it resemble the right sort of place for affairs: extramarital affairs, affairs of the heart, affairs to remember, the settling of big-business financial affairs, et cetera. (Hardly an especially new thing for Kettner’s — several sources claim that Oscar Wilde went there “for illicit assignations,” which appears to be a very polite and very English way of saying “to cruise.”) Whatever it intends to be right now, a postgraduate first-date pizzeria it ain’t.
Nor is it exactly the kind of place it was when Wiston Churchill, Agatha Christie and Bing Crosby happened to be regulars. “The original menus were quite creamy and fatty,” Jones revealed, “so we have made a menu for now that winks at the past, with a Kettner’s omelette, terrines and things like that.” Having once been, in the immortal words of The Spectator, somewhere where the “English aristocracy in waistcoats, and in love, would bring their wives and their mistresses to try French cuisine for the first time,” it is now the place for a less-unbalanced clientele, where both sides of the dalliance are familiar with the taste of escargot. It’s a more sophisticated site for more sophisticated sexual intrigue.
And speaking of sexual, or at least delightful, intrigue: one last fact is that the greatest, most mysterious affair that ever happened at Kettner’s is the curious first meeting between the all-girl authors of a song about Robert De Niro, Bananarama, and, well, Robert De Niro. A little less than chic or sexy, it nevertheless tends to stick in the mind for its combination of the high and low, or the cheap-and-cheerful and the very expensive. In this way, it isn’t unlike the restaurant itself: a place that’s memorable throughout its history both for heady excesses and its general accessibility; its connections to literal royalty — thanks to its being one of several places that Edward VII would meet his mistress, Lillie Langtry — and to Pizza Express, who owned the joint around the time that young Jay Rayner dined there, and debuted (of all things) their signature garlic dough balls at the venue.
“When the song [Robert De Niro’s Waiting] came out,” Bananarama’s singer Sarah Dallin later said in disbelief, “he was in the UK and he invited us for a drink at Kettner’s in Soho. We were all sitting there when this guy knocked on the window. It was a freezing winter’s night and he had a bobble hat and glasses on, and we just thought: ‘Who is that person trying to catch our attention?’” The magic of Robert De Niro in a bobble hat and glasses peering through a window at Bananarama is, in miniature, the magic of starry Soho. Kettner’s is a Soho institution; it has long facilitated just the right breed of insanity. It feels right that once again it’s been revived, and righter still that this is only one of its many lives. “It’s so much fun bringing it back,” Jones said, “and doing something Auguste Kettner would be proud of.” Auguste Kettner would, for certain, love its hell-for-buff-grey-leather sex appeal — it’s up to the clientele to fill in the rest of the scandal.