An institution that ran for 150 years will be reborn this week. That’s not what this story is about but it’s where it starts. Walk down Romilly Street in London’s Soho and you will see a nondescript, terraced building of weathered walls and white-aproned windows with black-and-white checkered steps leading up to an inky black door. It looks like a building that was designed by someone who never wanted to be an architect but was forced into it by his dad. You could be forgiven for having never heard of Kettner’s, one of the oldest French restaurants in London, closed in 2016 and soon to relaunch as the newly named Kettners Townhouse, but hidden behind its bland facade lies some of the most sensational stories no longer told.
The restaurant is as old as Soho itself. Founded in 1867 by Auguste Kettner, chef to Napoleon III, a cook who was so fastidious that he thought that frying bacon was an insult to the pig who had laid down its life, it opened its doors to the great and the good of Victorian high society in the same year that Charles Dickens published Great Expectations. English aristocracy in waistcoats and in love would bring their wives and their mistresses to try French cuisine for the first time – feasts of carp fillets à la Duxelles, fried gudgeons with asparagus in cream, devilled kidneys, thick stews of eel and tench and perch, all washed down with apple and almond tarts for dessert.
They say that the philandering King Edward VII built a secret underground passageway between the restaurant and the Palace Theatre, so that his mistress Lillie Langtry could slip away after performances for an intermission of supper downstairs and a final act in the private rooms upstairs. Because of this, it became such a haunt for hooray henrys having affairs that the long-suffering chambermaids always knew to knock.
Over the decades, if you had walked into the restaurant on any given night, you could have seen, among the chattering crowd, Oscar Wilde wining and dining the rent boy Charles Parker in the champagne bar, riffing about art and poetry and history, getting at his heart and his liver, as Pip might say. You could have spied Agatha Christie bludgeoning a Bouillabaisse into the endless night and caught crooning Bing Crosby dreaming on some enchanted evening and felt dizzy with the galaxy of stars circling around you.
Kettner’s wasn’t just part of Soho, it was Soho. It was the sordidness and the sobriety, the hokey and the pokey, the tickle and the slap. Rising up around the restaurant over generations, Soho was built and re-built to be London’s den of iniquity, her guilty little pleasure, Mayfair’s more fun younger brother; and before Miles Davis played Ronnie Scott’s, before the IRA bombed Bridle Lane, before Paul Raymond ran Revuebar, before the mods and punks and rockers and beatniks and Red Lights and Pride, before Soho was Soho, there was always Kettner’s.
Now, as is the way of the world, the restaurant is re-branded, re-born. The continuation of the Kettner name may serve only as a wink to the past and a nod to the future. The new restaurant will be a success, the new owners Soho Group will make sure of that. And perhaps, as the building enters this new chapter, the bright young things who will be lining up to get in will realize that they are not just dining in the latest craze, they are dining with history.
An edited version of this article was published in The Spectator