Mayfair was given its name in 1686 after King James I allowed a fair to be held on Shepherd’s Market for two weeks in May. It’s a bit less riotous now but even if it does rate among London’s most expensive boroughs – home to hedge funders and flashy ex pats – it is not the desert of bland table cloth twitching and eye–wateringly expensive menus that the average diner might expect. There is a bit of that – a strong power lunch is a daily ritual – but if you seek around the genteel streets, there are a good number of restaurants that survive beyond a first sniffy weeks. Many are worth a slap-up trip and some simply aren’t that over the top after all.
Alyn Williams at The Westbury
Despite the haute atmosphere and hushed tones of The Westbury, Alyn Williams’ food is fun. Michelin-starred fun, but fun. His second-in-command even describes the Saturday lunch service as a “playground” where the chef will test out ideas for the next week. Williams trained under Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay. The food is British with a swipe of Asian – English shrimps and nori seaweed, pork belly hit off with hispi cabbage and pineapple. The wine list, which hails from 31 countries, is a treat.
There are so many contenders for the best pasta crown these days that it is the ‘secondi’ and not the ‘primi’ that stand out at this rarefied Italian. Cushy seating and low lights make it a good nosing spot from which to watch passers by on Savile Row. Chef-patron Francesco Mazzei is the same name behind the slightly less purse-emptying Fiume at Battersea Power Station and Radici on Almeida Street. The signature black cod with liquorice is succulent and intriguing. Follow it up with the superbly indulgent amaretto tiramisu.
A cosy, textured den of a restaurant tucked away from Piccadilly on Shepherd’s Market, Mayfair’s old red light district. Although it is named after a courtesan who was once painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the food is far from promiscuous. Tidy bites of Welsh rarebit, cured sea trout, parsley risotto daubed with scallops, enticingly juicy cuts of lamb – it’s the kind of restaurant to huddle into on a brisk autumn night. Its star rose when Tomos Parry – now of Brat fame – headed the kitchen. Current chef George Barson, of River Cottage and Heston Blumenthal pedigree, has continued the good work.
A Mayfair favourite to those in the know, particularly those who like their steak or a proper English fry up. This old, old pub has its own grill room and is everything that the clean-eating Chelsea juice bars are not. A place to drink red wine in large glasses and argue over the merits of lamb over beef – or vice versa. It does do other things: an unctuous mushroom risotto and a pie with a poached egg on top but really it is one for carnivores in search of almightily good and unfussy protein – preferably in winter when the British pub comes into its own.
45 Jermyn Street
If you’ve been shopping in Fortnum & Mason, you could do much worse than slip into its restaurant, hidden around the back and treat yourself to dinner. The Grand Cafe style has a satisfying buzz occasionally punctuated by waiters flambeeing lobster or beef a table. The theatrics aren’t entirely necessary but the menu – mostly classic British dishes with pasta thrown in – is varied and satisfying. The white truffle tagliatelle slathered with parmesan is pretty naughty but pretty good.
Monck’s has only been open a few months but already the fashionable crowd of Dover Street have started to treat it as a regular haunt for drinks (I raise a toast to whoever thought up its ginger negroni). Whether it is because Monck’s is relatively new and therefore the staff still enthusiastic or not, the service is impeccable. The dishes are safe, brasserie style but beautifully executed. If you want to try something more surprising, wait for the dessert menu and take a punt on the chocolate panna cotta and lavender ice cream.
The most pimp-my-restaurant of all of Wagamama founder Alan Yau’s restaurant concepts, this flamboyant Chinese is mad and not cheap but a lot of fun. The house speciality – top of the extensive menu – is the Cantonese style duck roasted to order but there’s also light dim sum for lunching and a few more European ingredients thrown in from Welsh lamb to Iberico pork. You can either eat in the upstairs Salan de Chine, a bougis brasserie-style affair, or downstairs in the more illicit feeling Club de Chine, where there is entertainment too.
One of Mayfair’s oldest pubs does exactly what you want a decent gastropub to do: serve burgers, a weighty risotto and fish and chips at reasonable prices and run a good number of beers. It has been in situ ever since Mayfair’s earliest days as a playground for the wealthier London residents. It does a mighty good Sunday lunch best eased with a walk in Green Park and runs butchery classes occasionally too.
Mayfair restaurants do a good line in off-the-wall interior decor. Bombay Bustle – a fancy, pinkish railway carriage – somehow manages to stay the right side of classy. It doesn’t distract much from the food, which is mostly south Indian with a strain of the north thrown in – and generous in size (or perhaps that’s the waiters who pile us high with titbits). The ‘adipoli’ prawns (‘awesome’ in a South Indian dialect I don’t catch the name of) are annoyingly as awesome as the name suggests. Chase with soothing dabba dal and pretty much anything from the tandoor. Save room for the date and cinnamon pudding.
Pollen Street Social
Jason Atherton’s haunt – the sister to Berners Tavern – is favoured by the hushed lunching crowd. It has a bistro vibe and an inventive menu – reassuringly expensive but genuinely interesting with suckling pig, cardoon and caviar making an appearance. It is Mayfair and Michelin-starred after all. The three course lunch (£39.50) is a good deal and there’s a vegetarian and vegan menu too making it an easy win for groups. The oyster ice cream is surprisingly moreish.
Mayfair’s most famous Italian does not please everyone – partly because, as mentioned, there are so many good Italians in the city these days and possibly also because its stark interior seems a bit antipathetic to the idea of spag bol. But Giorgio Locatelli’s place – Michelin-starred – is not a spaghetti dripping type of place. The range of pastas is almost mind-boggling: malfatti? Calamarata? But they are slippery, comforting and delicious. And the ingredients taste as if they might have just come from a Puglian hill, almost.
Arguably encroaching out of Mayfair to the other side of Regent Street, Folie has taken up residence in an old PizzaExpress. Tout change. The owners have engaged the studio behind Chiltern Firehouse and the Yves Saint Laurent museum in Marrakech to recreate the glitz of the 1970s Riviera and the menu is decorated with southern French dishes such as bouillabaisse and brissaouda as well as more unconventional combinations like celeriac carbonara. It’s not quite the heat of Provence but in drizzly London it’s a pretty good attempt.