September 19 2011
Idly leafing through an old guidebook the other day, I was struck by just how many once-fashionable restaurants are no longer with us. Opened in a blaze of glory, nobody noticed their built-in obsolescence at the time; only with hindsight could we say, “It’ll never last.”
Some became dated as soon as the opening party champagne went flat; some boasted star chefs now on television, or in rehab; some just didn’t cut the mustard once the Next Big Thing had arrived. In the world of fashion, trends necessarily change by season and year; for restaurateurs, style and design are the hallmarks of success, while timelessness – free of fashion’s whims – is the dream.
And who is the UK’s most stylish, design-driven restaurateur of the past 25 years? Sir Terence Conran, whose first restaurant, The Soup Kitchen, opened on London’s King’s Road in 1953. His prolific period, however, started with Bibendum in 1987 – Conran’s food hero Elizabeth David paid a visit – with Quaglino’s, Blueprint Café, Almeida and Pont de la Tour just a few notable successors along the way.
D&D London took over the running of Conran’s restaurant empire a few years ago (he retains a majority shareholding), but the old dog still has some new tricks. Prescott & Conran, a joint venture between Sir Terence, his wife, Vicki, and Peter Prescott, former Conran Restaurants operations director, now owns three restaurants: the resolutely English “caff” Albion, in Shoreditch; the smarter, sexier Boundary, downstairs; and the rather lovely Lutyens in the old Reuters building on Fleet Street – its bar a haven for stressed lawyers in need of a therapeutic martini.
Both Boundary and Lutyens epitomise Conran’s idea of the perfect restaurant: style and comfort for the diner; not a whiff of cheffy self-indulgence on the menu; and friendly, straightforward service. Charcuterie is beyond reproach, the plateaux de fruits de mer are the best in London, and roast chicken is always on the menu. Weekend lunch at Boundary and the menu compris at Lutyens are especially good value.
Wine, too, is a strong point: Prescott is justly proud of Château Boundary, the partnership’s wine club, which – à la bordelaise – is launching its En Primeur membership scheme this month. A yearly payment of £250 will buy you privileged access to tastings and dinners, discounts on everything from Riedel glassware to wine holidays and (naturally) purchases at The Conran Shop, plus other goodies. Membership rates, as the club’s name suggests, will increase in years to come: early joining is advised.
For many Londoners, their first experience of the pleasures of the table was in a Conran restaurant. We might have thought them fashionable at the time – remember how glamorous Quaglino’s seemed in 1993? – but the truth is that the best of them had bags of style; courtesy, of course, of the man who had designs on our dinner.