There aren’t any tunnels. But there is plenty of history. And now you can sleep over. Kettner’s one of London’s most famous, and oldest, restaurants, has a new lease of life.
Opened in 1867, by Auguste Kettner, a former chef of Napoleon III, the choice of Soho was not promising. Karl Marx may have lived in nearby Dean Street but so did a large number of prostitutes and Auguste’s brave choice of location made the venture looked likely to flounder until a letter to the Times was published in 1879.
The Beast At Feeding Time (food journalist ES Dallas) raved about the food and added: ‘The French cook whose house I have described is always at his post, ready to give you a welcome at any hour, no matter how late or how early.’
Rumours began to spread that Edward VII and actress Lillie Langtry were able to have trysts at Kettner’s thanks to a network of tunnels between the restaurant and Palace Theatre, which is across the road (and currently hosts Harry Potter & The Cursed Child). Oscar Wilde became a regular, later so was Agatha Christie.
In the 1980s, the building was bought by Peter Boizot, the founder of Pizza Express chain. I’m part of a generation who headed to Kettner’s regularly at the turn of the century. Yes, the food was much the same price as other branches of Pizza Express but you got linen tablecloths, a sense of occasion on the cheap and – this was important if you were living in London in the 1990s – it stayed open later than nearly anywhere else.
Now, new owners Soho House (the private members club which backs onto Kettner’s) has conjured up 33 bedrooms while restoring the restaurant and two bars to their former glory. There were, alas, no tunnels discovered but trysting will now be easier.
Kettner’s slightly louche past hasn’t been lost. Its entrance has a display of vintage women’s lingerie. The bedrooms – like sister hotel The Ned – go heavy on pattern and texture, mixing French-inspired Art Nouveau touches with William Morris headboards. Pick of the rooms, however, is the Jacobean suite on the first floor. Not only does it have its own private entrance onto Greek street, but the Edwardian panelling remain and feel-good additions include a supersize sofa and the sort of copper bathtub that even portly Edward VII could fit into – augmented by generously-sized Cowshed products.
Whatever the action upstairs, it’s the restaurant and bars that will define Kettner’s for a new generation. The creamy, delicate plasterwork and original mirrors remain. Out go the pizza menu, and dough balls, (which in a little known fact, pioneered in Britain at Kettner’s), and in comes a menu that harks back to Auguste Kettner’s original vision; there’s rillette of rabbit, toulouse sausage and cote de boeuf. (£65 for two) but eat pre or post theatre and there’s a set price menu of £20 for two courses and £24 for three to keep things affordable.
However, the champagne bar, is likely to bring in the theatre owls and will be a portal back to the Kettner’s of yore; it’s open until 1am. White-jacketed bartenders can whip up a champagne martini and pair it with soft boiled eggs and soldiers at breakfast, croissants from Maison Bertaux on Greek Street (open since 1871) for elevenses and keep the spirit of Kettner’s alive.