London After Dark

André Balazs gives the swinging city something to talk about with his buzzy new hotspot,
Chiltern Firehouse
Chiltern Firehouse, André Balazs’ first venture outside the US, is something like an American debutante: beautiful, vibrant and taking London by storm. The restaurant opened in February 2014 and has since become a lightning rod for the press, garnering high praise and below-the-belt swipes with hints of truth on both sides. The Telegraph called its fish “a disaster,” adding that its pudding “transcended the merely disastrous to cross the threshold of the calamitous.” But a reservation list packed with A-list names suggests otherwise. Plus, the food at Chiltern is not the only draw.

Balazs is a master of the soigné space, and his hotel-restaurant hybrids manage to maintain an enduring appeal that surpasses the moment of their arrival. Can you stay in a more luxurious hotel than his Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood? Probably. Can you dine on better food than that served at the Standard Grill in New York City? Most definitely. But do you want to? The impresario’s destinations are touched by an unquantifiable measure of chic that can’t be replicated or beat. And much of that magic is at play at Chiltern Firehouse.

As is customary for Balazs’ projects, the restaurant’s aesthetic was carefully calibrated by a team of in-house designers and outside collaborators, including Archer Humphryes Architects and Studio KO. The building itself was one of London’s first purpose-built firehouses, erected in 1889 by Robert Pearsall, once the resident architect for the Metropolitan Board of Works, and is prized as one of the finest surviving examples of pre-war England’s Victorian Gothic architectural style. Its original structure and romantic silhouette have been painstakingly retained and reinstated to their glory, and many of the building’s original details, like the façade’s carved Portland stone arches and brickwork, were revealed during the renovation. The outdoor forecourt was repaved and now acts as a foyer through which lucky dinner guests enter the restaurant—lucky, of course, if they’ve managed to get past the imposing doorman standing guard at the wrought iron gates.
Balazs’ restaurant has hosted a who’s who of celebrities and politicians
The building now housing Chiltern Firehouse was one of London’s first purpose-built firehouses
Inside the building is a hotel that’s home to 26 bedrooms, each boasting at least one or more working fireplaces, but at the heart of it all, where fire trucks once parked at the ready, is a large open-kitchen restaurant with soaring ceilings, green velvet banquettes and a cast of staff in white and black formal dinner jackets. For London, the space is unique; it’s been likened to a New York brasserie, though a more accurate comparison might be to Balazs’ Standard Grill but blown open and out. Though formal, the staff treats all its patrons with a relaxed respect, as if they’re all Bradley Cooper or Kate Moss having a night out on the town. The reservation roster is replete with names that are bold even among the beau monde set—Lily Allen, Naomi Campbell, Bill Clinton, Lily Cole, Cara Delevingne, Princess Eugenie, Lindsay Lohan—which might explain why there’s an informal moratorium on reservations, unless you’re represented by William Morris or CAA, or if your caller ID shows up as 10 Downing Street. (Yes, Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife have supped here.)
Some may scoff at being placed at banquettes on the periphery, but, in truth, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.
Given the high-celeb wattage coursing through the room, walking to your table can be a bit like walking onto a movie set, where everyone is present to see and be seen. Some may scoff at being placed at banquettes on the periphery or at stools facing the open kitchen, but, in truth, there really isn’t a bad seat in the house. Even Gwyneth Paltrow might request a table to the side, up the stairs and behind the kitchen, especially for a discreet dinner with soon-to-be ex-husband Chris Martin. And mere mortals will be glad to excuse themselves to the restrooms just so they can pass supermodels and financiers popping champagne over thin tapered candles along the way. Overhead, original fire hoses have been patterned into crisscrossing sheets and secured to the ceiling. Kudos for the artful repurposing alone, but even higher praise is due for the functionality—the hoses buffer the noise level in an otherwise boisterous room.

In the kitchen, Executive Chef Nuno Mendes—who trained in the US under Wolfgang Puck and Jean-Georges Vongerichten—serves up a menu that celebrates contemporary, ingredient-focused cooking with “an underlying American accent.” That accent might be heard in the fried chicken wings with smoky bacon ranch dip, which we ordered on the recommendation of a behind-the-scenes member of the Balazs team back in New York. Beyond that American-inflected app, the more locally inspired offerings would make the queen quite proud: the soft-poached egg with garlic, morels and Jersey Royals, those delectable potatoes from the bailiwick of Jersey; roasted celeriac with leafy greens, pearl onions and walnuts; roasted turbot with seaweed fregola, cucumber and crème fraîche; and the wood-grilled aged rib eye with Isle of Wight tomatoes and a scrumptious chimichurri sauce. Whether or not you agree with the Telegraph’s assessment of the pudding, there’s plenty here to like—culinary and otherwise.

WHERE ELSE TO EAT AND DRINK IN THE SWINGING CITY

Berners Tavern
Gymkhana’s Flutterby cocktail


Rivea London, at the Bulgari Hotel

WHERE TO EAT

Restaurant: Berners Tavern, at the London Edition hotel
Where: 10 Berners St., West End
Why: Created by Ian Schrager, this “restaurant in a ballroom” features modern takes on British comfort food and glamorous art-filled walls.
Learn More: bernerstavern.com

Restaurant: Gymkhana 
Where: 42 Albemarles St., Mayfair
Why: Fine Indian cuisine is served in a setting inspired by colonial Indian gymkhana clubs, where members of British high society went to socialize, dine, drink and play sport.
Learn More: gymkhanalondon.com

Restaurant: The Keeper’s House 
Where: Burlington House, Piccadilly
Why: One of London’s best-kept secrets, this restaurant and garden bar is tucked away at the Royal Academy of Arts, making it a good option for pre-theater dining.
Learn More: keepershouse.org.uk

Restaurant: Rivea London, at the Bulgari Hotel
Where: 171 Knightsbridge, Knightsbridge
Why: Alain Ducasse’s latest venture offers fresh and simple food inspired by the French Riviera with none of the typical French fuss.
Learn More: rivealondon.com

WHERE TO DRINK

Private Club: 5 Hertford Street
Where: 2-5 Hertford St., Mayfair
Why: Despite—or perhaps because of—its members-only status, 5 Hertford Street draws everyone who’s anyone, especially to its basement dance club, Loulou’s.
Learn More: 5hertfordstreet.co.uk

Bar: Blue Bar, at the Berkeley Hotel
Where: Wilton Place, Knightsbridge
Why: Tucked inside one of London’s chicest hotels, at the edge of Hyde Park, Blue Bar draws crowds with its trademark bright, lacquered walls and inventive cocktails.
Learn More: the-berkeley.co.uk/knightsbridge-bars/blue-bar

Speakeasy:
 Purl
Where: 50-54 Blandford St., Marylebone
Why: With its many cozy nooks and crannies, Purl is the perfect place to grab a nightcap and people watch, but be sure to make a reservation or you’ll never get past the door.
Learn More: purl-london.com

Destination: Sketch
Where: 9 Conduit St., Mayfair
Why: Neither bar nor restaurant nor art gallery, Sketch considers itself a “lieu,” or mash-up, of all three concepts (and the crowd isn’t bad either).
Learn More: sketch.uk.com
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DANIEL CAPPELLO is the fashion director of Quest magazine and the author of several books, including his most recently published, Dinner Diaries: Reviving the Art of the Hostess Book (Assouline).
  • COURTESY OF RALPH LAUREN CORPORATION
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM CLINCH; COURTESY OF CHILTERN FIREHOUSE
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY TIM CLINCH; COURTESY OF CHILTERN FIREHOUSE
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLAS KOENIG; COURTESY OF BERNERS TAVERN
  • COURTESY OF GYMKHANA
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY PIERRE MONETTA; COURTESY OF RIVEA LONDON, AT THE BULGARI HOTEL
  • COURTESY OF SKETCH