Being fashionable, a famous person once said, is to “Zig when the world zags”. London’s restaurant scene is zigging as we speak, but this will not last forever. And has Berners Tavern, a restaurant that possesses a seemingly unrelenting agenda to be kicky, missed the boat?
This was just one of many things that struck me about my surroundings whilst sitting at the stunning bar in the Tavern, sipping a cocktail out of a glass milk carton through a red and white striped ‘barber shop’ straw, but the thing that got me thinking most of all was the room’s hyper-exuberant use of hanging pictures. They are a mishmash of oil on canvas from every era, lavishly framed and hung upon plain grey walls. My reasoning? That if – or more accurately, when – this Jason Atherton-led grill becomes slightly less trendy, the cost of redecorating comes down to simply how fast a man with a ladder can move.
For now, though, things here are good. Berners Tavern nestles in the newly re-opened London EDITION hotel, EDITION being a Marriott brand developed with Ian Schrager, a hotelier and designer who used to co-own the -ahem- conservative Studio 54 nightclub in New York. So immediately, you can see what both restaurant and hotel will be gunning for in feel, budget, and impact.
The feeling of Berners Tavern (name for the original hotel, on Berners Street, near Oxford Circus) is right on point and provides what the cool and crazy cats about town are on the prowl for at the moment – a glitzy yet down to earth celebration of Best of British, where diners can eat well and drink better under the highest of ceilings, waited on by servers turned out in that lackadaisical look of black slacks and loose white shirts – seemingly their choice of long or short sleeve. That “off-duty-model-look”, as one of my mates would say.
This all-day brasserie tends to catch you off-guard, as you settle into the familiarity of the menu and warmth of where you are, only to realise that this restaurant (god knows why they call it a tavern – the Cheltenham Tavern’s a tavern) is too cool for school, for example when you gaze up at the egg-like chandeliers in the room, or when a bog-standard scallop starter is served with lime ice and jalapeño. The stuff of screw-balls.
Equally mind-bending is the strength of the cocktails, where my ‘Cereal Killer’ is a juvenile combination of ‘Coco Pops milk’, chocolate bitters and white chocolate, laced with a litre of Havana Club and coffee liqueur. The cocktails are generally twists on classics, given witty names and an extra twist of alkee-hol (the ‘Corn on the Cobbler’, served with corn whiskey, sherry and dry curaçao, was deemed by my colleague [yes, this was a working dinner] “almost too strong to drink”). However, all drinks somehow succeed, ‘Dill or no Dill’ being a personal favourite, kicking up the wonderful marriage of gin and cucumber with a neat little tang of smoked salt and um, yes, dill, actually.
Having run out of cocktails to try, we moved on to wine for the meal – bottles start at £twenty/thirty-ish, but this being the future den of London’s finest such as media employees, ‘consultants’, Cara Delevingne and ahem, Harry Styles, wine is available for prettier pennies than that. El vino was flowing that evening, but I will sign off talking about the hooch by telling you to try the Sauvignon Blanc as it’s superb.
In any restaurant, the food needs to be the star attraction, so it must be said that at the Berner’s Tavern, which has a pretty special beverage offering and a visual spectacle beyond, say, Mila Kunis sitting atop a gold-plated Veyron, the grub has got a difficult job on its hands. At first glance, things are good, with Atherton enlisting long-time colleague Phil Carmichael as head chef, working out of a smart, semi-open kitchen that spills into the rear of the dining room.
The menu is simple, and probably the most tavern-y thing here, however it conceals little twists that go beyond scallops, lime, and chili pepper. On the heavier side of the starters, we have quail with pork and tomato jam, a deep scarlet dish that tasted exactly like it looked – intense! Lamb with pecorino was served to one of us who usually does not do ‘heavy food’, but it was universally acclaimed, even as yours truly, the lamb-skeptic, as a masterpiece of well-cooked lamb and umami.
Much like the decor, the menu seems very adaptable; the restaurant, being in a hotel, flicks from dinner to breakfast, into lunch. Chicken and Caesar salads sit alongside pulled pork and beef burgers, and the rest of the mains on offer for dinner are again simply and beautifully British (pork belly, veal or sea bass, anyone?) however we all went for steak, British of course.
The steaks come ‘complete’, i.e. served with sides, not only chips but salad too (I cast the latter aside as eating leaves in most forms, particularly with steak, is misplaced masticatory effort). Berner’s Tavern prices their beef just shy of the Goodman / Gaucho bracket, but only by a hair’s breadth. The beef is not as good, but cooked well, but the chips, cooked in duck fat, are incredible. It seems that you must search pretty hard to find manky fries in town these days. We should have stopped now but we had the alco-munchies and the dessert menu beckoned.
Pudding is the Achilles’ Heel of Berners Tavern. Chocolate-filled donuts could have come straight of a bag from Tesco (as could the chocolate eclair, a separate choice), though it was fun to play the ‘try eating one with licking your lips’ game for the first time since school. The sweet potato brûlée was stodgy and rescued only by a spiced ice cream. At the end of the day, the food offering is good, but only matches, and doesn’t quite exceed, the way this restaurant looks and feels.
Later in the evening, we were whisked downstairs for a look at the nightclub, visible first through a soundproofed glass wall. As we consumed (yet more) cocktails, served in mini, plastic coke bottles and alcoholic slushees straight from the machine, like in a mid-Nineties Butlins resort, I thought back to what is going on in the dining room above.
I liken Berners Tavern to Tramshed, which I recently returned to. Both serve great food and drink in a spectacular setting, charging roughly the same prices. Which one would I go back to first? Probably the Tavern, but then I am a sucker for Marriott. Which one will do better?
Why? Because it got there first, and these days that is what matters.
Cocktails £seven to £twelve, starters c£ten, mains c£twenty, steaks c£thirty, desserts c£seven
bernerstavern.com (website seems to be a bit derelict, best visit via the hotel site) | @Berners_Tavern | 0207 908 7979 | 10 Berners Street, London, W1T 3NP
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Originally published 6th October 2013.