Twenty five years ago, I was a young green thing just out of university. It was a benign John Major world, a different time and I was a different me with a baby banker boyfriend and a collection of cocktail dresses. I remember the banker fondly as a glamorous Chelsea Etonian (before everyone moved to Notting Hill) and he used to take me to Le Caprice, the hottest place in town, charming the maître d’ so we always managed to get a spot at the bar for dinner. Bang bang chicken and a glass of champagne, we felt so grown-up, admitted into the club of the well-heeled, the monied, the successful. Life, I imagined, would all be very pleasant.
That was before I turned left; left the country — New York, Moscow, Tbilisi, Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Paris, Cairo, Jerusalem. Peripatetic. Writing wars and revolutions with a single suitcase full of chinos and sneakers. Many hotel rooms and borrowed or rented apartments later, I have come back, for a while at least, to play foreign correspondent in my own city and write a new column about restaurants. For old times’ sake, I went to Le Caprice on a Friday evening, alone.
A torch flame outside the restaurant beckoned in the darkening gloom of the evening, the doorman smiled and twirled the revolving door for me. The maître d’ greeted me as warmly as an Italian uncle. Perhaps it was this triple welcome that immediately transported me back to that youthful carefree sense of happily-taken-care-of. I was shown my seat at the bar and ordered a negroni. The restaurant was full and the noise was a waterfall of animated conversations.
The restaurant was remodelled five years ago, but the black and white glamour of 1930s America remains. What makes a restaurant’s ambience? Is it the right noise level, the swish of efficient waiters, the low flattering lighting (I saw menus being read by the glow of mobile phone screens) or the tea lights which make twinkling stars of light as they reflect in gemstone jewelry and glasses of champagne? The negroni was excellent. Jesus Adorno, the legendary maître d and now director of Le Caprice Holdings (which has grown to include a whole slew of hottest places in town: The Ivy, J Sheekey, Scott’s, Sexy Fish) is about to celebrate 35 years of Le Caprice and his own 35 year tenure. I talked to him by phone a few days after my visit (he was away the night I went) and he told me: ‘People often tell me that when they walk into the restaurant they feel the crescendo of the room itself. It’s a big powerful room to be in.’ He said he thought an ambience was created by a clientele. The men wore open neck shirts bought from the shirt makers of nearby Jermyn street, the women wore tans and dresses and gold link necklaces. Several people were laughing.
I scanned the menu: gazpacho, burrata with heritage tomatoes, asparagus, octopus with chorizo, prawn and noodle salad with coconut, tuna ceviche, sashimi, dressed crab, steak tartare, primavera risotto. For the main course there was lots of fish. Would I prefer a classic dish of sole with brown shrimp butter or a sea bream with sauce vierge and tarragon, or fish and chips? Or perhaps I would like a more ethnic taste of Thai baked sea-bass, miso-marinated salmon, or tuna with Moroccan chickpeas? Maybe a lump of good old-fashioned meat: rump of veal with girolles, calves liver with pancetta, duck breast with a honey glaze, rib-eye and frites with béarnaise. I hesitated. The Campari and gin flushed through my brain. I decided I was feeling Italian-ish and ordered the deep-fried courgette flower and the chicken Milanese.
Le Caprice describes itself as a modern European restaurant, but actually the menu is a collection of obvious crowd pleasers. ‘The customer is king,’ Jesus affirmed. It is a menu that says, have whatever you want, whether sushi or steak, a light vegetarian healthy nibble or a Thai curry, spicy or creamy comfort. ‘We have a look at what’s happening in other successful places,’ Jesus told me, ‘analyse restaurants around the area, look at menus online and what is trendy. We have to adapt. We had to have sushi when Nobu became popular.’ Over the last decades, of course, he noticed that people have become more healthy in their eating habits, ‘definitely more fish, less meat. We have a proper vegetarian menu now. More Asian influence, Japanese. But still the classics like risotto and vongole.’
The food at Le Caprice was good and it still is. The courgette flower was crispy and light, the chicken Milanese was happy mouthfuls of crunchy breadcrumbs and juicy interior. On the other hand the food was never brilliant — the guacamole and tomatoes that accompanied the courgette flower were bland, the chicken needed seasoning. But Le Caprice was never about the food. The draw was always the buzzy atmosphere, what Jesus called ‘a cul-de-sac ambience,’ the feeling of being in a clubby, chummy bubble, the people watching.
When they first opened, Jesus remembered, they attracted the late-night theatre crowd because they kept the kitchen open til midnight in an era when everywhere else shut tight, last orders at 11pm. ‘Artists from the plays and opera would come in and half the restaurant would clap and shout bravo!’ Jesus remembered. These days Le Caprice is more venerable than hip-hot. ‘People say to me, oh your customers are very old now. I say, well they were in their 30s and 40s twenty years ago.’ Around me, I saw a few tables of elderly grandees. A casual smart couple in their fifties or sixties came in and greeted the barmen by name. Regulars, says Jesus, are the backbone of longevity.
On one side of me at the bar were two impeccably groomed American women gossiping about people they knew. On the other was a couple with East End accents, ‘Gotta go to Baltimore … raise $2m …’ I saw an Asian man in a lavender shirt sitting alone scrolling through his phone until his steak arrived. Nearby an Italian couple were shown to their table for two and I watched the man, deeply tanned forearms, thick wavy brown hair, chunky battleship steel watch, cashmere sweater knotted around his shoulders, drink his flute of pink champagne and agitate between his mobile phone screen and his beautiful companion.
While the piano player tinkled in the corner, the scene held a certain theatre and musicality. I watched the waiters swoop to place and take away dishes, brush crumbs from table clothes, replenish glasses, all practiced bustle and efficiency. I enjoyed the bartenders’ ballet of glass polishing and cocktail shaking as they made a succession of espresso martinis. ‘Would you like one?’ one bartender asked me, but I demurred. He shook his head, mock rejected, ‘Very popular! Whoosh, it wakes you up!’ But when the piano player stopped I felt a crack in the scenery. A table of middle-aged couples that had been gregarious against the jazz of the piano, now seemed almost raucous, over gesticulating, banging on the table at punch lines. Full up, I ordered a coffee, untempted by the desserts; sorbet, pavlova, cheesecake, roast peaches, elderflower panna cotta.
For their 35 year anniversary Le Caprice is putting bang bang chicken (that delicious, moreish, inauthentic confection of peanut butter sauce with an Asian accent) on a nostalgia menu. I had a very nice time, sitting at my perch at the bar, considering time and distance, paths not taken, bankers not married, folding nostalgia over memory. For Jesus, who came to London from Bolivia forty four years ago aged nineteen, Le Caprice is a ‘happy busy place’ that has given him life and a career, ‘like a magical dream’. I don’t regret not becoming a regular, but I am happy there is a part of my youthful aspirations that I can still visit. Staying the same while nimbly keeping up, subtle evolution, is a neat trick in a restaurant, and not an easy one. Le Caprice may be a little more Essex accents than Chelsea these days, but I gave up in-crowds a long time ago. I went out into the night, older and wiser now, able to appreciate the fleeting feeling of being swanky and cosseted.