Thursday, 11 August 2011

Quaglino's, St James's

Quaglino's in St James's was imbued with an indelible glamour the moment when, in an early episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Patsy set out to Eddy their itinerary for the day as:

"...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."

Patsy's choice of lunch spot was understandable; in its Nineties heyday, under Sir Terence Conran's ownership, Quaglino's was about as fashionable as restaurants got. It will come as no surprise that it was the first place I rushed to eat at when I moved to London in 1994 and loved it.

These days, Quaglino's is part of the vast D & D London restaurant empire and is, if not exactly unfashionable, unlikely to figure on many a Londoner's must-go list. This is, I have to say, a terrible shame, as it's still, well, absolutely fabulous.

The room, unchanged in twenty years, is stunning; the most frequent comparison, and I can think of none better, is with a grand ocean liner. An imposing, canopied glass entrance opens into a blond marble, muralled lobby from which a slightly perilous staircase leads down to the mezzanine. Here, a small army of black-uniformed staff wait to welcome and whisk coats away. Entrance to the huge dining room proper is via a sweeping staircase, flanked by the restaurant's famous bronze 'Q' motif and which it is impossible to descend without feeling as glamorous as Dolly Levi arriving at the Harmonia Gardens.

My dinner date - the Patsy to my Eddy - was my friend Caroline, with whom I've had a tradition for several years now of catching up over long, boozy meals at D&D stablemate Le Pont de la Tour. On this occasion however we'd been lured to Quag's instead by my having accrued enough Toptable points for a free three course meal there. Caroline benefited from the same menu being available to other diners at just £25.50, including additionally a glass of Piper Heidsieck Champagne - which given that the latter by itself usually costs £12 is an incredible bargain.

Four choices were offered for each course and although essentially formulaic set menu stuff - a soup, a salad, smoked salmon or rillettes for starters, chicken, steak, fish or pasta for mains - imaginative accompaniments and attractive descriptions lifted things above the ordinary. Caroline's Severn & Wye smoked salmon, served with a wholemeal blini and a tart vine tomato and shallot dressing, and my duck rillettes with pickles and a good chewy sourdough were smart takes on these classics.

Mains of gilt-head sea bream with 'sea vegetables'  - seaweed to you and me - and saffron potatoes was a lovely piece of fish, the flesh firm and skin grilled crisp, the whole a very grown-up riff on fish and chips. Pan roasted breast of chicken with an oyster mushroom and broad bean ragout and a handful of roast gnocchi was nourishing and more substantial than initial appearances would suggest - portions are neatly plated on large white crockery, which plays tricks on the eye. Side orders are offered at a flat £3.75 but are not necessary.

Had they not been part of our offer menus we'd probably have passed on desserts, but a little known law still on the statute books states that if knickerbocker glory appears on a menu it is an Englishman's obligation to order it. I fulfilled my obligation stoically and was rewarded with a splendid coupe of cream, fruit and sauce which I enjoyed tremendously. Caroline also liked her apricot and almond tart, crisp sweet pastry encasing a light but satisfying crème patissière-based filling.

The wine list is extensive, particularly strong on France but spanning old and new worlds with a reasonable but limited selection by the glass and carafe. It's a great read with much to excite but by no means cheap, starting at £21.50 and going up. Mark-ups aren't aggressive though  - particularly on Champagnes - and our 2009 Viognier Mas La Chevalière was a lovely bottle for £24.50.

With an additional glass of Champagne (well I couldn't let Caroline drink hers alone, could I?) and 12.5% service our total bill was £70; more than we'd  perhaps expected to spend but with hindsight a complete bargain for the quality of the meal we'd had. A la carte prices however might make the eyes water.

Service was impeccable with just the right level of formality to complement the grandeur of the space without feeling stiff. While many restaurants have moved towards a much more casual style of service in recent years - the next waiter to address my group, whatever our genders, as 'Guys' will see his 12.5% deducted - at Quag's the atmosphere is altogether more deferential and the height of polished professionalism.

Patsy and Eddy might have moved on - to where, we will find out when Ab Fab returns to our screens later this year - and taken the cool crowd with them, but like Ab Fab, Quaglino's seems overdue a revival. I rushed to eat there in 1994, and do you know what, sweetie darling? I'd happily rush back.

Quaglino's, 16 Bury Street, St James's, London SW1Y 6AJ Tel: 020 7930 6767

Quaglino's on Urbanspoon

Square Meal


  1. Great to see a review over restaurant that has fallen off the fashion (and most bloggers) radar.

    While my last visit did not change the culinary world, my visit was a lot of fun which is what Quags always was about. Just a shame the cigarette and cigar girls have gone.....

    Agree with you about the "guys" comment when you are paying anything more that a fiver !

  2. My girlfriend (a PR) loves this place though I think it's mostly down to the ab fab connection. I've yet to go, I think this review just made up my mind. Sounds fabulous!

  3. Gregory - Completely agree, I remember on my first visit (when I was still a smoker) buying a cigar from one of the girls and feeling like a Rockefeller. And yes, I stole an ashtray...

    Pavel - That's so kind, do give Quag's a chance; there's no denying the glamour of the place!

  4. Thanking you kindly for the heads up- on quags and on Ab Fab returning to screens. Oh- and for the absolute chortle I had on reading that it's an Englishman's obligation to order a knickerbocker glory if listed.


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