‘Young, sassy women love it as much as I did’
Fiona Duncan finds that the revamped Kettner’s maintains its deliciously playful charmKettner’s today
In varying guises, and to varying degrees, Kettner’s has been a house devoted to fun, frolics and the pleasures of the flesh since 1867. Now, after a major two-year refurbishment and with a deft mix of nostalgia and panache from new owner Nick Jones and his Soho House group, it feels just as bubbly, but rejuvenated. People have always caroused at Kettner’s; in the Soho House incarnation with 33 new hotel bedrooms upstairs, you can sleep off the champagne in situ. With luck, you won’t be alone: Kettner’s is still a place for dalliance rather than business.
Even when it became a Pizza Express in 1980 to 2008 (Kettner’s was where Pizza Express dough balls, a snack I love, were first produced), the place felt deliciously raffish and glamorous, all plush red velvet and dim booths in the Champagne Bar, yet affordable. I knew it well in those days; how we loved it there, splashing out on bubbles while waiting for a table, listening to the energetic pianist, choosing steak and chips instead of pizza. This was Pizza Express founder Peter Boizot’s personal restaurant and it had an enhanced menu.
For 10 years I worked almost next door at publishing house Mitchell Beazley, creating illustrated books, falling in love (40 years on my office romance is still intact), making lifelong friends and generally growing up. Already, in our little patch of Soho, bounded by Shaftesbury Avenue and Old Compton Street, we had it pretty good where memorable lunch spots were concerned – and lunch out was part of daily life in those easy going pre-Pret-at-the-desk days.
But until Peter Boizot came along, Kettner’s, with its elaborate French menu, was out of our league. Before then, I used to love walking past the distinctive scallop-shaped entrance porch and the sign that stuck out from the side of the building: Kettners spelt out in silver letters in a vertical column at once grand and showy; but I never went inside.
Kettner’s in the 1920sCredit: Illustrated London News Ltd/Mar
Both entrance and sign are still there, and Kettner’s is still, just, affordable. Of the 33 bedrooms (Tiny, Small, Cosy, Medium and Big), the Tiny ones – which aren’t, by the way, nearly as tiny as those at sister Dean Street Townhouse – start at £225 for non-members, but as ever with Soho House, the Nick Jonesian extras make the price feel more than reasonable (imaginatively stocked mini bar, included in the room rate, and drinks tray; silver caddies for tea and coffee, Marshall speaker, Roberts radio, phone chargers, hot water bottles, luscious robes, rows of Cowshed products; ice brought to your room for cocktails at 7pm). With original Georgian timber floorboards and fireplaces, heritage windows, vintage pieces and William Morris prints, the look is moody, dimly lit Twenties French boudoir. The corner Big room, with windows on two sides and divinely comfortable slipper bath, is gorgeous and the huge Jacobean Suite directly above, with dining table and L-shaped sofa, is stunning, I could imagine a scantily clad Feydeau farce taking place in here: it’s hard to distinguish, or find, the bedroom and wardrobe doors embedded in the dark panelled walls. Even the receptionist showing me the room got them muddled.
The bedrooms have replaced the series of intimate private upper floor private dining rooms, scenes of much naughtiness, for which Kettner’s was renowned. On the ground floor, however, the Piano Bar, restaurant and Champagne Bar remain, their original features (fin de siècle mirrors, floral plasterwork, sugar cube mosaic floor) enhanced by specially curated naughty-but-charming artworks, French glass lights and rosewood and mahogany furniture that recall an old inter-wars French bistro.
It was in fact not a Frenchman but a German, Auguste Kettner who opened the restaurant 151 years ago, and though the rumour that he was Napoleon III’s personal chef was never proved (much about its history is hearsay), he was certainly one of the first to bring French cuisine, then considered wildly rich and extravagant, to London.
With its cabinets particulières upstairs (the lovely oval, wrought-iron and brass railed staircase remains) it soon became a place for intimacy and assignations. Most famously, Edward VII is said to have frequently romanced Lillie Langtry here, though the tale that he had a tunnel built between the restaurant and the Palace Theatre has no foundation; Oscar Wilde most definitely had assignations (a note proposing one exists); and in later years Winston Churchill, Bing Crosby and Agatha Christie (hardly a flirt) are all known to have been aficionados. There was always good food, champagne, and music (in the Twenties it was Geoffrey Gelder’s Kettner’s Five, who produced hit records). And whiffs of scandal. One owner was arrested during the war for dealing on the black market and Kettner’s featured in Wilde’s trial; he described it as “not so gorgeous in price” as rival places.
In today’s manifestation, the atmosphere in the restaurant, pretty as a party dress, is naturally frothy, and the menu includes bistro classics such as omelette, steak tartare, terrine and bouillabaisse. At breakfast it was filled with young, sassy women just the same age as me when I frequented Kettner’s all those years ago. They evidently love it as much as I did.
29 Romilly Street, London W1D 5HP (020 7734 5650; telegraph.co.uk/tt-kettners). Doubles from £225 per night, excluding breakfast (£170 for members). For a complete guide to the best hotels in London, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-londonhotels