In 1964, swinging west Londoners started to beat a path to Abingdon Road, Kensington, where a tiny fashion label called Biba had just opened its first boutique, its walls covered in bespoke wallpaper by designer Julie Hodgess. Those with particularly deep-pocketed bellbottoms (among them Biba’s founder Barbara Hulanicki) would commission Julie to do for them what she had done for Biba: design wallpapers for their homes.
Hodgess went on to have a sideline as a restaurateur. In 1969, she opened the perfect showcase for her eclectic taste: a restaurant on the other side of Holland Park from Biba, simply called Julie’s. Its nooks and crannies were stuffed with antiques, patterned fabrics, reclaimed stained glass and dark wood panelling.
Over the next 40 years, Julie’s became an institution. It played host to royalty and rock stars, acted as an unofficial canteen for the upper echelons of the nearby BBC, and was the venue for parties, trysts and dangerous liaisons: Princess Diana was a regular patron, attracted both to the privacy afforded by the labyrinthine layout and to its proximity to Kensington Palace. The Gannet, meanwhile, remembers the 1990s Julie’s with great fondness, but a distinct lack of clarity.
The haze surrounding some of those memories lifted recently when I visited the new incarnation of Julie’s, which has reopened on the original site after a hiatus of nearly five years; reassuringly, Julie Hodgess has designed the interiors. And The Goring’s former executive chef Shay Cooper has been put in charge of the kitchen: Julie’s never had a particularly high reputation for its food, which Cooper is determined to change.
I am pleased to report that he is on the right track. Raw chopped sea trout came flappingly fresh with tiny, crunchy diced kohlrabi and a herb-flecked dressing, slivers of fried ginger adding a sweet spice.
There followed a risotto in which the rice was speckled through the jade-green, watercress-rich sauce, a generous spoonful of Dorset crab resting on top, bolstered with a punch of horseradish. And finally steak tartare, hand-chopped and piquant with capers, scattered with deep-fried shallots and green beans, a little slick of onion mayo bringing the flavours cleverly together. It is the best sort of fork food: Julie’s is a place for intrigues and dalliances, and nobody wants to bone a whole fish on a first date.
And what of the new space? It is sleeker and more modern than before, with a particularly smart bar, but its essentials – the stained glass, the panelling, the semi-private alcoves upholstered in Pakistani kilims, even the miniature model of the Albert Memorial – are still there. Julie’s has rediscovered its boho mojo; I only hope that Holland Park still houses enough bohemians to do the place justice.