Restaurants to remember – Glass visits four London restaurants situated in buildings of historic renown

IT’S a baffling fact of life that we sometimes forget what was eaten in a restaurant but remember the wallpaper or the waiter; recalling whether the meal was enjoyable or not but at a loss to recollect what was on the plate. One cure for such cases of culinary dementia is to be found by going to restaurants located in buildings so unique as to imprint themselves for ever on the mind and enjoying food that will leave only pleasant memories even if some of the side dishes fade with the passing of time.

The Gilbert Scott is just such a place and a taster for what awaits the visitor is the Victorian gothic extravaganza that forms the exterior of a Victorian edifice on the otherwise grimy, traffic-polluted Euston Road. The building, now housing a modern hotel and luxury flats, was commissioned in 1865 by the Midland Railway Company following a competition for the design of a railway hotel. The winning architect was George Gilbert Scott and his design for an escapist fantasy hotel opened on May 5, 1873. It closed down in 1935 for financial reasons and the building remained moribund until the next century but, after a mega-expensive face-lift, the place reopened in the 21st century. On May 5 2011, the lobby and coffee room of the original hotel became the bar and restaurant of The Gilbert Scott.

The ceiling of the bar at The Gilbert ScottThe copper lampshades hanging from the ceiling of the bar at The Gilbert Scott are just one aspect of the eye-popping decor

The media hullabaloo that greeted the opening of a second Marcus Wareing restaurant has now subsided but the visual and culinary treat on offer has not abated and the show begins in the bar. Prepare yourself for an aesthetic overdose, a gorgeous faux-Renaissance palace, showered in gold leaf and framed by ornate arched windows – the kind of place where students of fine art could sit for hours practising their drawing skills. All this is a rich overture to the restaurant itself, occupying a large curved room with huge windows on one side and equally large oil paintings of rural and marine scenes on the other.

Waiting for you outside The Gilbert Scott When winter is over, a seat outside the bar at The Gilbert Scott is an attractive proposition

The distressed mirrors, pillars of polished limestone and high ceilings complete the air of grandeur but, thankfully, the menu scoffs at Continental fine dining in favour of traditional British cuisine. Nyetimber, the finest of English sparkling wines, whets the appetite for venison from the Lake District, crabs from Dorset and a palate-ticking, cinnamon-flavoured baked aubergine that dissolves national borders in the pursuit of the exotic.

The original pillars holding up the roof of German GymnasiumThe ornate Corinthian-style pillars at German Gymnasium are part of the
original building that was purpose built as a gymnasium

From St Pancras, where The Gilbert Scott is situated, it takes only a couple of minutes to walk to King’s Cross station and alongside it you will find another metamorphosis of Victorian brickwork into a quality restaurant. It’s a standalone structure, designed in the same year George Gilbert Scott won his commission but the architect this time was Edward Gruning. His brief was from the German Gymnasium Society for what would be the first purpose-built gym in England and it functioned as such until closure in the 1930s.

Wallpaper in the German GymnasiumWashrooms are not usually decorated with wallpaper like this but
as German Gymnasium it is very appropriate

It is now German Gymnasium, a busy-busy café on the ground floor and a quieter restaurant on the first-floor balcony. Original features, like gymnasts’ climbing hooks in the ceiling and cast-steel columns, have been kept in place but the details do not capture the imagination in the way that the lofty scale of the whole structure and the soaring roof above your head manages to do (best experienced from the restaurant). There is a huge bespoke clock over the bar, made by leaders in railway clock manufacturing, Smiths of Derby, just in case there’s a train you need to catch.

The food at German Gymnasium calls itself Mittel-European, which translates into a menu satisfying hunger pangs from breakfast to dinner time with occasional forays into German cuisine with the likes of veal schnitzel and Nürnberger hot dogs. The café can become as crowded as a railway concourse while the restaurant provides more privacy. The washrooms enjoy easy-on-the-eye wallpaper – depicting gymnasts in formal attire swinging in a triple trapeze or perfecting toning exercises on sturdy wooden machinery.

A different face of Victorian London has been transformed into Hawksmoor Seven Dials restaurant, more Dickensian than fantasy gothic, found at the end of an alleyway calling itself Langley St. The building was once a major London brewery, dating back to the early nineteenth century, and as you descend downstairs into a low-ceilinged, wood-panelled bar area it is not difficult to imagine the subterranean space as storage room for a multitude of barrels and bottles. The interior designers have not tried to disguise this basement as something else, using the vaulted brick ceiling and cast-iron columns to accentuate the sense of being somewhere ancient and cavernous.

The original Hawksmoor restaurant was in Spitalfields and now there are six outlets of what has become a chain of steakhouses but carnivores can rest assured that some of the best steaks in London are to be enjoyed on their premises. At Seven Dials there is a sad token vegetarian item (ricotta dumplings) and two fish dishes but the whole point of coming here is to relish the small-to-doorstep-sized steaks and relish the kind of meal that was being annually hosted there a century ago by the Lord Mayor of London for royalty and bigwigs.

The entrance to Thirty Six restaurant in Dukes HotelDuke’s Hotel, home to Thirty Six restaurant, is discreetly positioned off St James’s Street

On London’s timescale, Victorian times are the recent past and especially so when you eat at Thirty Six in Dukes Hotel. The courtyard of the hotel goes back to the early 16th century when Henry VIII built St. James’s Palace as a hunting lodge and refuge from the feckless gossip which pervaded court life at the Palace of Whitehall. By the second half of the 17th century fashionable coffee houses were established in the area and the courtyard around Dukes led to the house occupied by Barbara Villiers, one of the king’s mistresses. The building was later demolished but the site became Dukes in 1908.

Thirty Six restaurant in Dukes HotelThirty Six restaurant is the antithesis of noisy brashness and has
an atmosphere of privacy and good taste

The shtick in the cocktail bar are the James Bond-themed martinis (Ian Fleming was a regular customer in his time), prepared from a trolley wheeled to your seat by gentlemen in white jackets. Some 350 martinis are shifted every day so the bar can be busy in the evenings. The restaurant is a quieter affair, a Trappist retreat compared to the German Gymnasium, in a room lined with fine art prints and looking out to the virtually traffic-free Little St James St. The food is delicious, from a dinky leek and lobster soup as an amuse-bouche through to British artisan cheeses featured as one of the deserts. In between, expect traditional English dishes prepared with perfection and brought to your table in an atmosphere of tranquility and refinement.

by Sean Sheehan