Quaglino is an iconic London restaurant. A restaurant of that name opened in St James in 1929, and Judy Garland had her wedding reception there in 1969. The restaurant eventually lost its lustre, and was re-opened by Terence Conran in 1993 (he sold it to D&D group in 2007). Quaglino offered a really large scale (400 seat) dining experience, and the impact of Conran’s relaunch was considerable, a symbol of the confident economic times that London was enjoying then (the UK had just emerged from a mild recession). I remember the thrill of walking into the vast dining room when it opened, looking down over the cavernous main dining hall from the staircase. Almost two decades on, the space is still impressive. You enter from the street down a flight of stairs, and then the dining room opens up in front of you, with a bar and then a grand staircase leading down into the main room. These days it is looking a little tatty in places, with the odd chip in the veneer of some tables and with even the marble staircase having had some patching, but it is easy to be carried along by the sheer spectacle of such a large space.
Head chef Jean Philippe Patruno joined in February 2012. He had a lengthy stint with Nico Ladenis, being the head chef at Nico Central and Simply Nico after working at Chez Nico on Park Lane. More recently he opened Fino and was head chef there for five years until 2008, moving on to Quo Vadis prior to coming to Quaglino. The menu is unchallenging, with British classic dishes designed to appeal to a wide audience. The dining room appeared completely full on the evening that we visited, which is a testament to its lingering appeal.
The wine list had around 150 bottles, ranging in price from £19.50 to £1,350. The average mark-up level was 3.1 times the retail price, though mark-ups varied significantly through the list, with costlier wines marked up much less than the cheaper ones. For example, 2010 Valpolicella Classico, Allegrini, Veneto was £34.50 for a wine that retails at £9, whereas 2001 Chateau Musar was £66 for a wine that costs £23 in the high street, and Gruaud Larose St Julien 1996 was £145 for a wine that will set you back £73 in a shop. We drank the enjoyable Jermann Pinot Grigio 2010 at a rather steep £51 for a wine that retails at £14.
Bread is provided by the Bluebird bakery (Bluebird is a sister restaurant and shop in the D&D group) and was very ordinary. Slices of brown and white bread were not stale, but neither were they very fresh, nor did they have much taste (1/10). A trio of scallops (£16) arrived served on scallop shells, though I do not think that these scallops had much to do with the shells on which they were served. The scallops were cooked carefully, garnished with parsley butter and gremolata, but the scallops were small and rather tasteless, lacking the sweetness that really fresh scallops possess (at best 2/10). Crayfish cocktail (£14.50) was a little better; the crayfish having reasonable flavour, the salad leaves fresh and the sauce having a good spicy kick (3/10).
I had whole roast baby chicken (£16.50) with spicy aubergine. The chicken was nicely cooked, though it did not have a great deal of flavour; the aubergine and tomatoes with it were fine and did have a pleasant level of spicing (3/10). Dover sole (£31.50) was better, served on the bone with a little herb butter. The fish itself was of good quality and the cooking of it was capable; to be sure, this is a very simple dish, but it is also easy to mess up, as I can testify via various examples over the years (4/10). On the side, beans were nicely cooked (4/10) and chips, while not great, were at least crisp (2/10). For dessert, Poire Belle Helene had chocolate sauce that was not particularly well made, having a slightly powdery hint in its texture, though the pear was cooked properly, and there was a nice shortbread biscuit (2/10). Better was lemon tart, which had decent pastry, nice texture and good acidic balance (4/10).
Service was very good given the scale of the operation, with efficient waiting staff and wine topping up that was spot on throughout the meal. The pace of the dishes felt a little rushed, but the waiters were clearly well trained. The bill came to £104 a head with a medium-priced bottle of wine between two and a single glass of dessert wine. The bill, to be honest, is the main problem. The cooking was quite capable (especially given the size of the operation) albeit the ingredients were generally ordinary, but you do have a sense that you are paying over the odds for the room. Given that the restaurant was packed out on the evening that we visited, it is however clear that the appeal of Quaglino has enduring staying power almost two decades on.