London’s Mayfair is as clearly defined by its boundaries – sequestered between Oxford St and Piccadilly, bordered on the west by Park Lane and on the east by Regent St – as it is by its reputation as a highly exclusive enclave, the preserve of the űber-wealthy.
Such an image is regrettably self-fulfilling in that it attracts a well-heeled set of people who like the sense of an elitist exclusivity while equally deterring those who fear it is too expensive or posh for a fun night out. It is time to redress the balance and discover a Mayfair that is not rarified, nor absurdly expensive, boasting a diverse range of restaurants and bars.
Let’s start with Mews of Mayfair. Its address is an alleyway – oops… I mean mews – where debonair folk sit to sip drinks. The tables, though, are crammed too closely together for comfort of the elegant kind and when added to the buzz of after-work chatter – as familiar on the ear here as at any London pub – somewhere quieter may be called for.
Mews of Mayfair
Up one flight of stairs and a transformation takes place as you step through an open doorway into a space that is easy on the eye: framed prints of flowers grace the walls, Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling and a leisurely air brings the promise of a placid evening. The menu card has a map of Britain showing the source of the food that is listed in conventional form – starters, salads, mains, Josper grills – on the other side.
Everything is organic, free range and additive free, even the desserts come under the heading of Puddings, though the petite-sized portions appear so aesthetically pleasing on the plate as to suggest an influence from nouvelle cuisine on the other side of the British Channel. The oblique influence of la cuisine française at Mews of Mayfair becomes an explicit French connection at Brasserie Chavot.
The décor, comprising mosaic tiled floor, outsized chandeliers and faux antique mirrors, pays too-obvious homage to the brasserie style but getting into the mood is helped by having English-speaking French waiters straight out of central casting – thankfully with the hauteur muted – and a sommelier who probably tasted a Château-Grillet on his first birthday.
Once seated and considering the menu, Mayfair is forgotten and you begin to feel like a Parisienne. The master chef is Eric Chavot, once acclaimed for his Michelin two-star cooking at a Knightsbridge hotel but who has now abandoned haute cuisine for down-to-earth dishes like a beef stew cooked in red wine (daube de boeuf provencale).
Dining in Mayfair
There is no dome-lifting rigmarole and exclamations of viola but rest assured that a pea, feta and avocado salad or something more complex on the menu will taste exquisite. French food does not get any better than this in London and a sojourn here is ideally prefaced with pre-dinner drinks – the cocktails come in two glasses – at the Polo Bar next door in the Westbury hotel.
The Dorchester in Park Lane would seem to be the apotheosis of Mayfair glitz and walking amid the gilded fabrics, oh-so-plush upholstery of the lobby to reach China Tang is like being in a super-fabulous Hollywood set. Or is all the sumptuousness pure 1930s camp?
And when the Gang Pao De cocktail in the restaurant’s bar, a whiskey-infused gunpowder tea, is presented as if part of a Chinese tea ceremony you wonder just what kind of Mayfair night China Tang offers. Have no fear, this is classical Cantonese and the décor is pleasing – lacquered wood, mirrored pillars, fretwork above and art deco trimmings below – never offensively opulent.
Low voices are not allowed in Cantonese restaurant and this one has the reassuring buzz of loud contentment as well as a fold-out dim-sum menu that wouldn’t look out of place in your local take-away – until, that is, your taste buds respond to the delicious choices. Mango spring rolls are filled with finely chopped Gai Lan, a traditional Chinese leaf vegetable, eccentrically accompanied by a dollop of salad cream.
Some 80 ducks leave the kitchen in the course of a day so no prize for guessing the house specialities and minor delicacies include lotus root, tasting like souped-up water chestnut but unique in appearance. Cantonese desserts usually disappoint but not at China Tang. Go there, it’s a gas.
Hakkasan Mayfair is another Cantonese restaurant in this part of town and its distinctive style hits you when, walking down the stairs, the lighting that haphazardly flitters from above evokes a walk through a sunlit forest. The play with illumination continues at the long bar under lime-coloured lights and while you can eat in this area it’s more atmospheric in the restaurant proper where light of any colour gives way to darkness.
The Hakkasan, Mayfair
Here, black is the new orange – from the dress of the waiters, who seem camouflaged in the dimness, to the colour of the fans in the ceiling and the lattice frames that divide up the dining space. Even the cloud ear mushrooms that come with water-chestnut and sugar snap are black. Hakkasan Mayfair is deservedly popular because the food is superb – as you would expect from a restaurant with a Michelin star – and because prices suit a variety of budgets, from an affordable three-course lunch or dinner to pricier signature menus.
The menu does not go in for highfalutin descriptions so what you taste is not as simple as what you read: a starter of soft shell crab is so delicately cooked that any attempt by your companion to dip into it should be resisted with violence and, for the same reason, the vegetarian dim sum platter is best not shared. The lobster wrapped in glass vermicelli will break gently in the mouth and the Wagyu beef slips down the throat effortlessly. Hakkasan is a happy place.
Dim Sum at Hakkasan, Mayfair
You will feel you’re in Mayfair in Hakkasan; not the case in Trader’s Vic where cocktails have names like Pinky Gonzalez and Samoan Fog Cutter (though the original Mai Tai was created here in 1944), a canoe hangs down from bamboo beams and staff wear Hawaiian-style shirts (but no grass-skirts). The theme, you’ve guessed it, is Polynesian and it’s a haven of pacific peace after the noise of Park Lane traffic outside.
Finger food for sharing covers the gamut from spring rolls and tiger prawns to ‘fork-tender’ spare ribs and grilled tuna brochettes. Bespoke wood-fired brick ovens, installed when the Hilton opened here in 1963, roast chicken, salmon, lamb and beef and pick up the aroma of the smoke. Traders Vic is a breezy place to be, especially so at weekends when a band kicks off in the bar area before a DJ takes over until the early morning hours (3am). And this being the Polynesian part of Mayfair, dancing is all part of the fun of being here.
The Traders Vic Polynesia in Mayfair
For a more restful but revitalizing end to the evening, a retreat to Cartizze (rubbing shoulders with Mews of Mayfair) suggests itself. In place of the usual array of liquor bottles behind the bar, an array of unique glasses present themselves. The in-house cocktails arouse curiosity, particularly the complex Amor y Amargo: its amaretto base, with a touch of Prosecco that never becomes a Bellini given the artichoke-inflected Italian liqueur, is something to talk about. For summertime, Cartizze’s milky-tasting gin fizz should do the trick.
For somewhere very urbane and unstuffy, the Coburg Bar in The Connaught is probably the perfect way to close a Mayfair night. The vintage-age mirrors hang above mantelpieces with scented candles wafting Roja perfume, the chandeliers and patterned plaster ceiling seem more homely than mannered and the wingback chairs look inviting: the place has the air of a quiet gentleman’s club but without the gentlemen.
Cocktails are arranged chronologically, so you could travel back in time to the 1880s for Martinez, the grandfather of the Martini, the wines are predominantly French and the champagnes and cognacs are some of the best to be found in the UK. Coburg Bar is just too comfortable and getting up to leave and face the real world outside … well, it’s not easy.
by Sean Sheehan