Hold the chips

A change in the gaming laws has opened up the rarefied restaurants of the UK’s casinos to non-members. John Stimpfig revels in the opulent interiors, exclusive ambience and fabulous food.

November 27 2010
John Stimpfig

Earlier this year, I had the almost unprecedented experience of my wealthiest foodie friend phoning for advice. He was plotting a lunchtime tryst and required a central London restaurant that was, I quote, “exceptional, discreet and different. I don’t suppose you’ve any ideas on the subject?”

This was a tall order. My pedigree chum had already eaten his way through all of the capital’s most worshipped temples of gastronomy. Not just once, mind you, but many times over. Clearly, he was in extremis, otherwise he wouldn’t have asked a decade-long country dweller like me to assist. And yet, much to our mutual surprise, I was able to satisfy his request in an instant. “Try Aspinalls,” I told him.

“Don’t be stupid,” came the irritated reply. “I’m not a member.” I patiently informed him that he no longer needed to be a member because of a fairly recent change in the gaming laws. “Now anyone can book a table at Aspinalls, as long as you’re over 21 and don’t want to game.” I also added that the restaurant was now run by the Italian chef Alberico Penati. “You mean the guy at Harry’s Bar,” he replied, a little more emolliently. “The very same,” I replied. “Damian Aspinall poached him a couple of years ago and coaxed him and his entire brigade to up sticks and move kitchens from South Audley to Curzon Street. Hello? Hello? Are you there..?”

Of course, what applies to Aspinalls also applies to all the other great and historic gaming clubs in Mayfair’s Golden Triangle. And, as a result, the likes of Les Ambassadeurs, Crockfords, The Clermont Club and the Ritz Club Casino have all been more or less quietly opening their elegant bars and dining rooms to non-gamblers anonymous over the same intervening period.

The latest to do so has been Les Ambassadeurs Club. It “relaunched” its magnificent Milroy restaurant overlooking Hyde Park earlier this summer and is now serving one the best lunches in London. No wonder it’s going down a storm with those in the know.

This gastronomic “glasnost” by London’s leading gambling dens isn’t just down to a legal loophole. The past two years have been tough on casinos – especially for those with high overheads in the heart of Mayfair. In the wake of the financial crisis, overall spend has fallen whilst UK tax rates are up. So too is the level of global competition. Last year, one of the capital’s newest and smartest casinos, 50 St James, folded for good.

With the stakes so high, all the clubs have had to look long and hard at how best to pull in more punters and maximise revenues. “Out of 25 London casinos, only half a dozen are right at the top level,” says Emile Borgonha, Aspinalls’ director of customer relations.

“We all have beautiful premises and we all offer the same odds at the roulette table. Often the difference between us is the wine, restaurant and interaction with the staff. The whole restaurant side has become more and more important in the mix of what we offer.”

On top of that, it made commercial sense to attract affluent diners beyond their regular gaming members, particularly as the food and beverage side of casinos was largely a loss leader. (As is common practice around the world, the top players invariably receive their food and wine gratis in return for their lavish custom.)

What also tends to happen is that members usually gamble first and dine later. Many don’t sit down to eat until midnight. This meant that for the early part of the service, the kitchens were underemployed. Worse still, some dining rooms were a tad too quiet for comfort.

“Opening up our restaurants was a win-win solution,” says Otto Hoenig, director of hospitality in London for Genting Casinos UK, which owns Crockfords, The Colony Club, Maxims and The Palm Beach in London’s West End. “Firstly, we had the spare capacity for non-members to come and enjoy the unique delights of casino dining. And secondly, the revenue has helped the bottom line, which is a small but welcome bonus. But most importantly, it has improved the ambience of our restaurants, which is good for everyone – guests and members. It’s also the best way of promoting the clubs to a new generation of potential clients.”

Despite this lifting of the veil, word still hasn’t really got out that one can eat and drink at these exclusive venues. Consequently, they remain one of the best-kept fine-dining secrets in London with USPs galore. One is their glamorous and racy pasts, while another is their remarkable premises. Founded in 1828, Crockfords occupies a sumptuous regency town house complete with Robert Adam interior. It is everything one would expect from a classic London casino. Next door is Aspinalls, which is smaller and more intimate. It oozes luxury mixed with indulgence and decadence. Chairman Damian Aspinall once wrote that, “our members want style, cachet, excitement, panache and a hint of danger”. Aspinalls delivers all of these in spades.

Just around the corner, at 5 Hamilton Place, is Les Ambassadeurs Club. In the 19th century, the imposing building was bought by Leopold de Rothschild, who commissioned the stunning Barbetti staircase and library around which London’s élite would gather. Today, its first-floor Milroy restaurant, with its fin-de-siècle interior, must be one of the most elegant and beautifully proportioned in London.

Over on Piccadilly, The Ritz Club Casino is even more overtly lavish and opulent. When its famous Amber room was created, more than 100 artists and craftsmen were called upon to replicate the splendour of Catherine the Great’s original in her St Petersburg Winter Palace. Now you can game in the gilt-laden room where Lillie Langtry danced with Edward VII.

Then there’s the people-watching. At one casino restaurant, I couldn’t help notice a highly successful Premier League manager holding court. And in a distant corner an ageing patrician diner appeared to have a passing resemblance to the long-lost Lord Lucan. But perhaps that was my over-fertile imagination.

Of course, accurately identifying the high rollers in the dining room isn’t easy. But there are ways and means. One is to see what they are drinking. For example, A-list gamblers will have their very own stash of Lafite, Latour and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), which are reserved just for them – gratis, of course.

Earlier this year, a group of extremely wealthy Asian customers who were gambling at Crockfords were treated to an astonishing array of the world’s finest and rarest. The list included some of the greatest-ever vintages of Mouton Rothschild, Sassicaia, Screaming Eagle, Pétrus, DRC and Dom Pérignon, followed by a digéstif of Louis XIII cognac. “It’s all part of the service,” says Hoenig. “We want them to enjoy the experience, feel appreciated and, of course, come back.”

But how do the clubs decide who drinks what? “It is not an exact science, but it is based entirely on what people spend at baccarat or the roulette wheel,” continues Hoenig. “Relatively speaking, it is a small cost when people are spending so much money on the tables. At the top end, it’s really not a difficult judgment call. In fact, you almost can’t give them enough. It’s much harder in the mid-range and lower end.”

At The Ritz, VVIP customers are also treated to any wine they require, while slightly less VIPs receive other complimentary wines – naturally, these are still “very good wines such as Palmer, Pichon Comtesse and Lynch-Bages,” says Myriam Lombard, head sommelier at The Ritz Club Casino. Everyone else has to pay for wine, whether they are a member or not. Nonetheless, the casinos’ lists and prices have been more than generous to paying customers. Some have sold cru classé claret at less than retail prices. “We have a wine list that would make most London sommeliers blush,” claims Ludovic Bargibant, restaurant manager at the Milroy.

The other intriguing aspect of casino dining is the choice of cuisines and dishes. Most menu options range from French and/or Italian to modern British, Lebanese, Thai, Chinese and Indian – and then some. But breadth of choice does not impinge on quality. Instead, each international cuisine has its own specialist chef hired from the country of origin. “The food not only has to be the best ingredients, but also completely authentic,” says John King, executive chef de cuisine at Crockfords. “Recently, one important client wanted Iranian food,” says Philippe Vandewalle, the long-time chef de cuisine at the Ritz Casino. “So we had to bring in an Iranian chef. But it could just have easily been Russian or Greek.”

Ironically, most experienced gamblers barely bother to look at the menus before ordering. “Part of this is simply showing off,” one chef confides. “The philosophy here is that you can’t impose a menu on clients. They impose their choices on us,” adds Vandevalle. “It’s not a Gordon Ramsay who runs this restaurant,” he continues. “The customers decide what comes out of the kitchen. In that sense, we are very upside down. You never know what someone is going to order. It can be stressful, but is never boring. The bottom line is that we don’t like to say ‘no’ – it’s not in the casino lexicon.”

As a result, experienced casino chefs are rarely surprised by the wacky orders that reach their kitchens. Bird’s nest soup is almost standard fare for some clients. Other demands are more prosaic. Some just want a fry-up at 2am. Perhaps the oddest client was Kerry Packer, who used to order hard-boiled eggs and onion.

“But whatever the dish, the food and service have to be exceptional,” says Emile Borgonha. “These are very rich, discerning and demanding people, who eat at the best restaurants all around the world. So we have to meet those exacting standards and expectations.” In hiring Alberico Penati, Damian Aspinall firmly believes that “for the very first time, our members have the chance to dine at a restaurant that stands comparison with the very finest starred venues in London”.

And yet none of the casino restaurants claims a single Michelin star, nor are they likely to. “It’s not where we want to be,” says Vandewalle. “Running this kitchen is complex enough without having to provide all the extra bells and whistles you need for Michelin.” Ludovic Bargibant at Les Ambassadeurs agrees: “Our clients want quality and simplicity. They don’t want us to serve food that looks like art.”

Even so, some non-gamblers feel a tad intimidated by the casino dining concept. “A few people are also lost with the menus. Others aren’t used to the idea of ordering anything they want,” says Vandewalle. “But most love the fun, freedom and flexibility. They can have a Thai starter, French main course and a Lebanese dessert. That’s pretty unusual.”

Moreover, the process does seem to be working. “A fifth of our customers come here just to eat and drink,” adds Vandewalle. “That makes a massive difference. On a Thursday night, there will be 30 people in the dining room, which creates the right atmosphere and ambience for when Mr Big walks in. Because the last thing we want him to do is go to one of our competitors.”

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