NORTHUMBERLAND AVENUE, a grand Victorian boulevard running from Trafalgar Square to the Thames Embankment, hides a dining treat.
IN 1887, a select and wealthy group of Victorians gathered outside a splendid new building in London’s Northumberland Avenue, a step away from Trafalgar Square. Described in The Builder as “in the Renaissance style… somewhat severe” and costing £200,000, this was the 500-bedroom Victoria, the latest in the capital’s growing list of grand hotels. The group admired the architecture, they were impressed by all the mod cons. But when they climbed the steps and entered the foyer, there were gasps of admiration. This wasn’t just grand design, it was superlative. Today, after 70 years in the doldrums as government offices, £7million restoration and refurbishment into a hotel, restaurant and private club complex, the old Victoria is drawing in the guests – and they are gasping again.
I did it myself. Climb those stone steps, go through the swing doors and you’re in The Marble Hall, now Boyd’s Brasserie and Bar. The only restaurant in the complex. It is breathtaking. Here are alabaster walls with inlays, dado, panels, Corinthian columns and floor of Bardiglio, Verde de Prato and Sanguino marbles. It’s like being inside one of those stripey sand bottles you see at English seaside resorts.
The colours are soft, earthy, restful, the lights low. The only splash of brightness is from a large abstract painting on one wall. There are potted palms, original stained glass windows and rococo ceilings. Guests sit on comfy banquettes. It is truly stunning and one of the grandest period rooms remaining in London. A sweeping staircase once stood in the centre linking an upstairs coffee room to the Marble Hall, but this was demolished in 1914, giving the room double height. Today that space – now the Bar – is tastefully lit with circular chandeliers like coronets holding tiny sparkling lights. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in such opulent and utterly Victorian surroundings.
The food, by head chef David Collinson – who previously catered for 32,000 guests at the Queen’s Garden Parties – is 21st century and delicious. We were tempted by the Menu du Jour and Pre-Theatre selection, but were finally persuaded by Ayman, our delightfully enthusiastic Moroccan waiter, to try a little of that with a lot of the rest on offer! We shared our starters, combining what Boyd’s call Little 8s – tiny plates of moreish morsels like braised venison and celeriac puree, glazed goats cheese with red pepper fondue and lobster dauphine with saffron mayonnaise – with stilton quiche, poached pear and caramelised walnuts. For the main course, my companion chose a tuna steak with tomato fondue, garlic salt and mashed potatoes. I had pan fried sea bass with more of those delicious lobster dauphines, pickled cucumber and a saffron sauce. We shared a bowl of crispy Boyd’s chips.
I had to have the intriguingly named Gypsy Tart for pudding. It should be horribly sweet, being made of lots of Muscavado sugar, but it’s very cleverly made and not at all gooey. It comes with crème fraiche and nut brittle and I could have eaten two portions. My friend had caramelised banana waffles and chocolate icecream. To complement the meal, we had an excellent special offer red Côtes du Rhone 2007. (Do ask what the “special” wine is if you’re eating the good value Menu du Jour.)
When we’d finished our excellent dinner Lewis, one of the restaurant managers, took us on a guided tour of the Victorian Ballroom and Banqueting Hall, used for special events and banquets. They are just as elegant and superbly restored as the Marble Hall, with beautiful plasterwork, stained glass windows and elegant columns. Plans are afoot to introduce Afternoon Tea, which, in such a grand space, will be a wonderful step back into the past. They are The Northumberland part of this complex, which also contains the new 80-bed Grand Hotel. Boyd’s Brasserie – owned by Charles Boyd and Adrian Brain – is their restaurant.
Spare a look at Northumberland Avenue after lunch or dinner. Leading from Trafalgar Square down to Thames Embankment, in the 19th century it was one of London’s grandest streets. Designed by George Vuillamy and civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who had cured The Great Stink in 1865 by improving the capital’s sewers, it was – and still is – reminiscent of a Parisian boulevard with its tall trees and wide pavements. A forgotten street after years of its buildings being turned into civil servants’ offices, it’s now being brought back to former glory, with Boyd’s offering a good value dining spot so close to Trafalgar Square, with its National Gallery, and The Strand, with its theatres.
Boyd’s Brasserie and Bar, 8 Northumberland Avenue,WC2N 5BY; 020 7808 3344; www.boydsbrasserie.co.uk Report by Pat Moore.