Order a dish or a drink at some of London’s most fashionable restaurants and rather than a waiter put it down in front of you, don’t be surprised if you see your order making a stately progress from the kitchen on wheels. Yes the trolley is back, and how! At Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge they have a bon bon trolley, at the Oxo Tower they have a martini trolley complete with a James Bond paperback to read whilst your drink is prepared, and at the Berners Tavern they even have a pork pie trolley, £17 for a giant pie cut at the table with a choice of condiments.
With trolleys comes the return of the sort of cooking that you thought died out in the 1980s. Coin Laundry on Exmouth Market offers chicken kievs and Ottolenghi in Spitalfields has avocado vol-au-vents on the menu. Forget sous vide, foams, and liquid nitrogen, we want our chefs in whites, red check trousers and the puffiest of puffy hats not in lab coats and goggles.
45 Jermyn Street opened in 2015 in Fortnum and Mason but walk into the dining room and you might think it’s 1975. Your dover sole will be cooked on the bone and then expertly filleted at the table; there’s a trolley on which the waiter will whip up scrambled eggs to go with your caviar; best of all they offer a dish that combines two retro standards, a black forest gateau baked alaska – flambeed in front of you, naturally. This is cooking with shoulder pads.
Going even further back in time is Otto’s in Gray’s Inn Road. It only opened in 2012 but looks like it’s been around since before the war. . . . the First World War. They have starched white tablecloths, antique Persian carpets and a (nearly) all French wine list. Otto’s offers the sort of food one can imagine Edwardian aristocrats tucking into. The house speciality involves a whole duck, the breast cooked pink and thin-sliced at the table, the legs served crisp, then the carcass is crushed in an antique silver press and the juices transferred to a sauce prepared by the waiter in front of you. They do something similar with a poulet de Bresse or, if you’re feeling really fancy, with lobster. It’s a sumptuous treat for all the senses. As Lee Stretton from 45 Jermyn Street put it: “the classic dishes lend themselves to theatre.”
He went on to say: “there is a movement to appreciate the art of service within the room. It is a reaction to all the stripped back restaurants which have good but simple and utilitarian service.” It makes a welcome change from the minimalist aesthetic that was so big in the 2000s where restaurants such as St. John’s In Farringdon had informal, casually-dressed waiters and no tablecloths.
The decor of 45 Jermyn Street with its bright red leather seating, immaculate white linen and table lamps compliments the theatricality of the service perfectly. It was designed by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio who also created the interiors for some of London’s most chic restaurants including the Ivy, Scott’s and the Caprice. It’s all about glamour. Diana Henry author of Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours, told me: “I loved the look of the life that went with this food: hessian walls, bottles of Burgundy, women with chignons and men in lounge suits, red candles on the dining table, this is the life to which I aspired.” Richard Corrigan’s new restaurant in Mayfair even has a piano player to go with the comfy chairs and heavy curtains.
All this plushness absorbs sound making restaurants like 45 Jermyn Street the perfect place for a long seductive lunch or perhaps somewhere to take your hard-of-hearing aunt. Compare this with St John’s, a cavernous former smokehouse, where I would leave with my ears ringing and voice hoarse from shouting over the hubbub.
One can chart the beginning of the retro revival to the opening of the Wolseley way back in 2003. Offering classic standards like omelette Arnold Bennett and Wiener Schnitzel in glittering surroundings, it quickly felt as if it had always been there. Then Brasserie Zedel opened in 2012 with its “chariots de fromage” and subterranean art deco dining room, like eating on an ocean liner.
The retro food trend isn’t just confined to London. No less an authority than Anthony Bourdain has tipped old-fashioned French cuisine of the sort championed by Elizabeth David and Julia Child as the next big thing, think Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon. There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about these dishes. Rather than the shock of molecular gastronomy, it is about comforting flavours cooked to perfection. Diana Henry told me: “I grew up with ‘retro’ food, which is why I don’t quite see it as ‘retro’. I was making steak Diane aged 11 and I thought it was impossibly delicious. I still also think prawn cocktail is fabulous.”
Simon Hopkinson agrees: “the prawn cocktail is wonderful.” He’s the author of a book about retro food called appropriately enough, The Prawn Cocktail Years. He went on to say “these dishes have never really gone away. They are what are what cooking is all about.” He told me that the chicken kiev and beef stroganoff were originally restaurant dishes. They are hard dishes to get right in the home so it’s great to see them back on the menu and done properly. Some restaurants, however, never lost faith with the classics. Oslo Court in St John’s Wood has been offering duck a l’orange, veal holstein and napery you could use to soundproof a recording studio since 1982. It’s food that people love to eat and will be eating for years to come. When the sous vide machine is gathering dust in the basement, the trusty trolley will still be doing the rounds.
This is an early version of something I wrote for a luxury good magazine.