Walk down Romilly Street in Soho and you will see a nondescript, terraced building with black-and-white checkered steps leading up to an inky black door. It looks like the kind of place designed by someone who never wanted to be an architect but was forced into it by his dad. You could be forgiven for having never heard of Kettner’s, one of the oldest French restaurants in London, closed in 2016 and relaunching as the newly named Kettner’s Townhouse. Yet hidden behind its bland facade lies some of the most sensational stories of London’s past.
The restaurant is as old as Soho itself. Founded in 1867 by Auguste Kettner, chef to Napoleon III, a cook who was so fastidious that he thought frying bacon was an insult to the pig who had laid down its life, it opened its doors to the great and the good of Victorian high society in the same year that Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. English aristocracy in waistcoats, and in love, would bring their wives and their mistresses to try French cuisine for the first time – feasts of carp fillets à la Duxelle, fried gudgeon with asparagus in cream, devilled kidney and thick eel stews, all followed by apple and almond tarts for dessert.
They say that the philandering King Edward VII built a secret underground passageway between the restaurant and the Palace Theatre, so that his mistress Lillie Langtry could slip away after performances for an intermission of supper downstairs and a final act in the private rooms upstairs. Because of this, it became such a haunt for hooray Henrys having affairs that the long-suffering chambermaids always knew to knock.
Over the decades, if you had walked into the restaurant on any given night, you might have seen, among the chattering crowd, Oscar Wilde wining and dining the rent boy Charles Parker in the champagne bar, Agatha Christie tucking into a bouillabaisse or, on some enchanted evening, Bing Crosby crooning away.
Kettner’s wasn’t just part of Soho, it was Soho. It was the sordidness and the sobriety, the hokey and the pokey. Rising up around the restaurant over generations, Soho was built and re-built to be London’s den of iniquity, her guilty little pleasure; and before Miles Davis played Ronnie Scott’s, before the IRA bombed Bridle Lane, before Paul Raymond opened the Revuebar, before the mods, rockers and punks, and red lights and Pride, there was always Kettner’s.
Now, as is the way of the world, the restaurant is re-branded, re-born. The continuation of the Kettner name may serve only as a wink to the past and a nod to the future. The new restaurant will be a success, the new owners Soho Group will make sure of that. And perhaps, as the building enters this new chapter, the bright young things will realise that they are not just eating in the latest trendy Soho hangout, they are dining with history.