Of all the gossip which circulates in the restaurant industry, talk that ranges from the current level of business to those who are not paying their bills promptly to which chefs are thinking of moving on, invariably the most interesting involves the speculation as to which restaurans groups and, increasingly, wealthy individuals, will eventually get their hands on those few remaining, once-famous but now sadly closed establishments in central London.
The potential for such transformations is obvious as the success of Le Caprice, The Ivy, J. Sheekey, Quo Vadis and the Mirabelle has demonstrated. These were built specifically as restaurants in a bygone era and with considerable style so their initial charm is enormous – but so too are the bills not only for securing them but also for transforming them to meet the needs of today's customers.
When I bought an 18th century townhouse that had been converted into a restaurant in the 1920s the kitchen had been condemned on 44 different counts by the local authority and the rest of the building was in a pretty similar condition. But I was young then and debt-free – at least I was until I signed the contract. Today, anyone wanting to renovate a similar faded gem will face a vastly higher bill than the £150,000 I spent 25 years ago, not just because the standard of the finished interior must be so much higher but also because of the expense of installing the now vital air conditioning in the restaurant and kitchens, a cost that will also involve keeping the neighbours, whether residential or business, happy as they will have grown accustomed to the silence of an unoccupied building.
These challenges have not, however, deterred numerous interested parties from circling two of London's last remaining neglected restaurants, Scott's in Mayfair and Bentley's by Piccadilly Circus. And while the former has fallen into the hands of the currently omnivorous Caprice Holdings and will open in 2007, Bentley's, which opened initially in 1906, has recently been re-opened by a partnership of the fast-talking Irish chef Richard Corrigan, 41, and the hospitality company Searcy's.
Unlikely as this partnership may appear, it has already proven successful elsewhere with Searcy's providing the finance and management to allow Corrigan the freedom to open and develop The Lindsay House in Soho while Corrigan has provided the culinary input to enable Searcy's to win prestigious contracts such as that within London's Swiss Re building. But at Bentley's this combination seems to have created something even more special.
This may be because both sides have in this instance contributed even more. The wife of one of Searcy's directors was responsible for the new interior design and she has sensibly eschewed anything too striking or extreme to produce an extremely comfortable feel in both the ground floor Oyster Bar, with its scallop shell light fittings, and in the restaurant upstairs. Corrigan, a chef with very definite ideas not just of the produce he wants to serve but also the quality of the cooking he expects from his brigade, has obviously put the insider knowledge he gleaned at Bentley's while working as Head Chef there in the early 1990s to very good use and has clearly defined the different roles he expects the Oyster Bar and restaurant to fulfil for his customers. I heard that during the six month renovation period relations between the two parties became more than a little frayed as the original budget of £1.3 million rose to over £1.8 million, but both should be more than happy with what their investment has secured.
Any customer should be happy too, particularly anyone who enjoys eating at a comfortable bar. Bentley's Oyster Bar joins those at Sweetings, and Wilton's in London and the Pearl Oyster Bar and Grand Central Station in New York where the pleasure of the food is equalled by the sense of camaraderie that sitting side by side and opposite an efficient barman will invariably engender. It is a pleasure to watch oysters being opened by a professional, see sweet pink cherry clams arranged in a circle, and see the cheeses, Crozier Blue and Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire, sit invitingly on the back bar waiting to be carved.
So far so traditional, and Corrigan has maintained this pedigree with an impeccable fish pie, but alongside these he has also cleverly introduced a series of dishes which moves the restaurant's culinary repertoire on: a Thai crab and mussel soup; stuffed squid with chorizo and feta; fresh water zander with smoked eel and pickled cabbage; and fillets of red mullet with roast pumpkin. The confidence and exuberance with which Corrigan now operates – and it is quite a sight, if probably unnerving for his staff, to watch him standing behind the bar goading his barman to open the oysters even faster – means however that this seemingly diverse, all-fish menu works very well indeed.
To the restaurant menu upstairs Corrigan seems to have brought more of his thrifty west Irish approach as, with the exception of the Dover sole, there is no main course over £20 and none of those individually priced side dishes which can so easily generate higher-than-anticipated bills. A dish described as back of sea bass with soft herbs and fennel caught my eye because it is unusual to see such an expensive fish on a West End restaurant at £18 but it was craftily cooked and full of flavour, the serving cut along the spine of the fish with the herbs stuffed under the skin before roasting. Similar culinary cunning has been applied to a steamed Elwy Valley lamb pudding (£12); a bone marrow and rump burger (£11.75); and a mixed grill which included beef, lamb, pork, liver and kidney and defeated two determinedly hungry young men (£16.50). The dessert menu maintains the same sense of craft while Corrigan has allowed his wine suppliers to have a lot of fun (and not excessive profit) under headings such as 'wines of the sea'.
But one of the hidden charms of opening such old restaurants is, of course, the memories they evoke. As an 18 year old I was taken by my late father to Bentley's for what he considered a rite of passage, a plate of oysters and a half pint of Black Velvet, Guinness and champagne in a pewter tankard. Thirty years later we went back for dinner with our children and had as much, if not more fun as Corrigan seems to be having in his former stomping ground.
Bentley's Oyster Bar & Grill, 11-15 Swallow Street, London W1B 4DG. 020-7734 4756. Open 7 days.