Amid the ‘casual dining crunch’ of early 2018 many restaurants have undergone rebrands or revamps to reinvigorate custom. One such place is Kettner’s Townhouse, a Soho stalwart that dates back to 1867. Soho House, who own The Ned and a string of private members’ clubs around the world, have added Kettner’s to their local portfolio and given it the makeover treatment. Its illustrious former patrons include the likes of Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill and Robert de Niro – so it has a lot to live up to.
But here’s the thing about rebrands: you can modernise the menu, upgrade the upholstery and invest in a Coravin device all you like, but this is all meaningless unless you get the fundamentals of restaurant service right – otherwise it just becomes a pointlessly profligate exercise in window dressing.
I went in to the ‘new’ Kettner’s with low expectations. At first, I was impressed as I walked through the bar and was becalmed by its soothing jazz piano music. Candlelit with comfortable seating, you could while away many an hour in the bar. But as I took my table in the restaurant it all started to fall apart like a piece of flaky trout.
Despite the ostensibly recent refit there were already stains on the upholstery and cushions, whilst the busy carpets and tulip lampshades reminded me more of an old people’s home than an upmarket bistro in swinging Soho. The restaurant was also eerily quiet – that was until an actor and their agent turned up and had an extremely loud conversation punctuated by the agent’s incessant phone calls. It was all extremely irritating. The (unknown) actor had a laugh like a seagull.
The tri-folded menu didn’t inspire and, more to the point, perturbed. A quick scan revealed a few bog standard Franco-British classics, some bordering on the exorbitant, with Devon crab weighing in at £12, a boeuf bourguignon at £14 and salt baked celery for the vegetarians at £17 – oddly the same price as the Banham chicken. Sides are all £5. But you needn’t bother with those.
The old Kettner’s wasn’t great. Alas, the new Kettner’s isn’t much better
The wine list also failed to impress: at first I thought there were no vintages (which usually means you’re in a pub, not a restaurant). It turns out they’re just in tiny print, barely visible to the naked eye. If a restaurant is being so coy about its vintages then you wonder what else they’re hiding from their customers. Salt was then poured into the wound when I decided to give the limited Coravin list a whirl. The waitress didn’t know the vintage of the St Emilion I requested. She went backstage somewhere to ask a superior (why she didn’t have this information at her fingertips I don’t know but I put that down to poor training). I think I visibly aged in the time it took for her to go and find out – a patience even a monument would be envious of. She finally returned with the information only to reveal my worst fear. It was a crap vintage all along. The wait had been a waste of time.
Indeed, the glacial pace of the service seemed to be a general theme throughout the meal. I was completely ignored for 45 minutes at one point but they weren’t even busy. My two course lunch took two and a half hours to be served which is unacceptable by anyone’s standards. I didn’t bother with a dessert as it was already tea-time when I paid the bill.
The food couldn’t save this slow-motion car crash of a meal anyway. The Scotch eggs may have oozed yolk correctly, but they were luke-warm and had a notable plasticity. Beef Wellington was the special of the day so it made sense to give this a try. The pastry and mushroom inner coating were fine, but the meat was Eeyoreishly grey, rubbery and listless. I was being robbed of £25 to pay for prison food. And even the little touches concerned me, such as the bread rolls which seemed like they were from a supermarket – you could almost taste the preservatives.
How I wanted to like Kettner’s. But a bit like The Ned, it promises much and fails to deliver. All I could think of was the chorus of Talk Talk’s 80’s song “Such a Shame.” The only saving grace for the whole experience was the piano bar, which I decamped to for a post-lunch (or rather pre-dinner) cocktail to calm myself down.
The old Kettner’s wasn’t great. Alas, the new Kettner’s isn’t much better. The pleasant bar shows that it isn’t beyond redemption, and I suspect the whole place will still be an irresistible magnet for louche socialites and arty types, but a lot of work needs to be done to improve the food, wine and service before I would recommend this to anyone.
29 Romilly Street
by J A Smith