A new, new regime at Claridge's

Claridge's restaurant

A top London hotel has had a makeover, which has been extended to its flagship restaurant. How successfully though?

In September 2023 Claridge’s, or The Claridge’s as many American visitors refer to this glamorous London hotel, reopened its restaurant and signalled a brave new direction for restaurants in hotels.

From the early 2000s the hotel management, like many of its peers, decided to partner with outside chefs. Initially, this was with Gordon Ramsay, then with Simon Rogan of L’Enclume, each arguably overrated. They then chose Daniel Humm, the Swiss-born chef who made his name at Eleven Madison Park in New York, a partnership which revealed the lighter, airier beauty of the dining room, reopened under the name Davies and Brook. This partnership came to an end when Humm decided that his future lay in an entirely plant-based menu, an approach that was considered too extreme by the hotel management.

The restaurant lay empty for a couple of years but has now been revived. The hotel management chose Irish-born Coalin Finn as head chef and decided to go their own way, an approach I can only applaud. Finn worked at Inverlochy Castle and Sketch before joining Humm at Davies and Brook so is a home-grown talent. It seems to me that the solution to the chef shortage is to train more chefs and this is part of that wider process.

So far, so good. But Finn apparently left his position at the end of last year and his role is now in the hands of Simon Attridge, head chef at Gleneagles Hotel since 2017 and recently appointed culinary director at Claridges.

To complicate matters, the hotel’s management have begun to shout loudly about their new restaurant too soon in my view. They have appointed the talented public relations firm Gemma Bell and Company to spread the word. An offer of a ‘free’ Sunday lunch led to an article by Bryce Elder, an equities reporter, on the travel pages of the Financial Times last Saturday and, the day after I made my booking there, both Jancis and I received an offer by email of a tour of their wine cellar plus an invitation to stay on for lunch. This would have saved me £243.22, the cost of my lunch for two, but may have blunted my judgment. I do try always to pay my own way.

I met my guest, a fashion designer who remembered celebrating her CBE in the hotel bar a couple of decades ago, in the hotel’s lobby where we came face to face with one of the hotel’s many luxuries. Their floral displays are fabulous. From the arrangements of forsythias throughout the dining room to a more mundane but still striking display of marigolds by the restaurant’s reception, these are visually most exciting.

There was another surprise at the restaurant reception. There stood, admittedly with a completely different hair colour, the ever-smiling Lorraine Abrahams whom I had last seen as maitre d’ in the very different Parakeet dining room in Kentish Town. Having welcomed us, she walked us through to a table for four – my friend uses an elegant walking stick – and advised me as I slid in between some extremely thick table legs, ‘They’re changing the table legs shortly.’ They need to. My left ankle suffered from pins and needles throughout the meal from being far too cramped.

But the table did allow an excellent view of the art deco interior with copious natural light pouring in from the windows overlooking Davies Street. We also had a view of the kitchen, in which numerous chefs were hard at work, and of the waiting staff smartly dressed in a relaxed uniform of grey and white. So far, so good – the restaurant managed to seem both smart and yet relaxed. Then the menus arrived and these sowed the seeds of the disappointments I encountered.

There is first of all the large à la carte menu. The six ‘snacks’ range from nocellara olives to black-truffle crumpets. Seven different first courses include a leek and watercress velouté, seared Orkney scallops, a plateau de fruits de mer and plates of fine de claire oysters. The seven main courses – from wild sea bass to a Dorset lamb loin – are no more challenging, and then along the bottom of the menu is a list of seven daily specials, from confit duck cassoulet on a Tuesday to Friday’s Dover sole, meunière or grilled. That is quite a lot of different dishes to ask any kitchen to produce to a high standard today. This daily specials tradition works only when customers can see the offerings and the waiting staff exhibit some enthusiasm for them, but no one mentioned these to us.

We ordered instead from the fixed-price lunch menu, at £58 for three courses plus 15% service. And while two of these dishes are also on the main menu, there is an additional soup plus a fish dish, brill, and another meat dish, beef-cheek bourguignon, plus a couple of extra dessert offerings. It’s a lot for diners to take in, let alone to expect any kitchen to master all these dishes in six months.

beetroot salad

The meal got off to a good start with the offer of a glass of Laurent-Perrier NV champagne and a couple of crumpets topped with an onion soubise and slices of black truffle. My guest chose more astutely than I did: the beetroot salad above and brill as her main course. I chose the ham-hock terrine, a thin slice, and the beef cheeks, which were not served in a particularly sensitive fashion. They were presented in a bowl which limits how one can enjoy this dish as there is little space left once the meat has been cut into. It was what some call ‘a plate of food’: mashed potato underneath, slabs of meat on top, both covered in a rich dark sauce. By the end I was reminded of a comment my late mother used to make when I had pushed the food around my plate. ‘There is more on your plate than when you started’, she would observe cuttingly.

beef cheek bourguignon

We ordered dessert and were presented with the à la carte menu from which we chose a pineapple vacherin and poached pears with ginger at £16 each. Both looked impressive but lacked freshness, as did the chocolate served with our single espresso and a macchiato, which took a long time to appear.

The restaurant’s wine list is impressively broad and deep with lots of the top names at top prices. I was told that there are about 850 bins at the moment but they are planning to increase this to 1,500 soon. After the champagne we drank a 125-ml glass of 2022 Chablis, Terroir de Courgis from Patrick Piuze (£24) and a 125-ml glass of 2020 Crozes-Hermitage from Alain Graillot (£26) served in two very different glasses.

Claridge’s management has made an appropriate decision in appointing Attridge. But they must appreciate how challenging his job is and perhaps allow him to make his offering slightly less comprehensive, and realise that the reputation of a dining room, like Rome, was not made in a day.

Claridge’s Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1K 4HR; tel: +44 (0)20 7629 8860

Every Saturday, Nick writes about restaurants. To stay abreast of his reviews, sign up for our weekly newsletter.