However splendid you charming people might think Wonderland City is, one must admit that it is also rather specialised (“classic standards of beauty and civility”) and, for now, London-centric. Apparently (I know, I was surprised too…) there exist places with “a sense of theatre and ceremony” that fall outside the forbidding standards we have sworn to uphold. And so, some enterprising blighters thought up the Restaurant & Bar Design Awards, back in 2009.
In any industry, these sort exercises tend to fall into two categories: fatuous self-congratulation by insiders or cheap PR fodder for bone-idle journos. Nonetheless, your tireless (and thirsty) reporter was incited to sample a few of the 2023 nominees by a frightfully decent chap and man about town. Seemed rather a poor show to not check out a few spots.
Is ‘13’ a lucky number?
Denmark Street, intersecting Charing Cross Road, is London’s ‘Tin-pan Alley’, with long and deep association with the music business. Several guitar shops still exist and at the turn of this decade a rock-and-roll-inspired hostelry was created by knocking together the upstairs of several small buildings: the Chateau Denmark. Its theatrically louche bar is called Thirteen, after the street number and, as you’ll have guessed by now, is one of the 2023 RBDA nominees.
The maximalist, decadent style approach that has been evident in Mayfair fleshpots like Park Chinois as well as Holborn outliers like the Kimpton Fitzroy and l’Oscar is amply evident here, but with a bit more focus on the Punk/Soho heritage. Damien Frost’s ‘Soho Tableau’ is reproduced downstairs and, most effectively, as a chain-curtain wrapped around the ground floor main room.
It would be exceedingly easy to deflate the transparent commodification of late-C20 youth rebellion / queerness. But it would also be silly, since every form of counterculture has always been immediately packaged and sold: it’s showbiz baby! We recommend accepting it at face value.
Also, the festive credentials of Thirteen are boosted by a pricing policy that is far less plutocratic than most central London establishments with ‘design’ aspirations (and many without). To wit: cocktails at £13 which, by today’s nosebleed standards, are a redeeming feature.
This place has a busy programme of music and performance, at no extra cost, and on our visit we were very impressed by the high quality of the jazz trio, led by Jay Phelps, which jammed in a 1950s early Miles Davis, Chet Baker style.
Worthy of mention were the unfailingly attentive and friendly bar staff, and enthusiastic marketing manager. The door staff, however, might have not got the memo, creating unnecessary delay despite reservations and the uncrowded space. This, incidentally, is something we’ve noted in other locales and that management should correct.
Ratings – People: ■■■□. Look/Feel: ■■■□
Verdict: not really Wonderland City but jolly good fun for the young-at-heart
Something went slightly Wong
Rathbone Place, linking Oxford Street with Charlotte Street, is positively lined with watering holes and nosheries and retains some of that Soho-Bloomsbury ratty-glamorous feel. The next 2023 RBDA nominee we visited, Lucy Wong, began encouragingly by being reached down a flight of metal steps down to the basement – a hallowed London tradition for roué drinking dens. A full panoply of chinoiserie is deployed but, alas, in a rather half-hearted way, mixed with some inexplicably generic pieces and details. The result is an inconsistent mix between a reasonably earnest theme bar and the downstairs at a Costa Coffee.
To its credit, again, the cocktail prices might appeal to patrons without Panamanian bank accounts (mostly sub-£15) and the service is pleasantly solicitous. The raised semi-enclosed area at the back looks a bit more purposeful but overall, one suspects that the RBDA panel that nominated this place was swayed by artful promotional photography that is simply not reflected by reality.
Ratings – People: ■■■□. Look/Feel: ■□□□
Verdict: they have a very late license – that’s something – and they’re across the street from the hallowed Wheatsheaf pub of New Sheridan notoriety
Back to Denmark Street, but housed in one of the new, post-architectural blocks north of St Giles, Tattu is the London location of a small chain of Chinese-inspired ‘design’ hotels. The in-house bar here is the Phoenix Bar, which benefits from a felicitous set of 6th floor views. Both the indoor section and the outdoor terrace are intimate in scale and with some retro references, which tends to help. Conversely, the ‘modern Chinese’ restaurant adjacent is rather sprawling and quite modern.
The cocktails here were priced just below £20; not exactly a bargain but far from the rapacious end of the scale. They were also, on the whole, better executed than elsewhere by a very simpatico barman. We note with some relief that, across the Metrop, ‘mixologists’ have been shedding the irksome auteur pose so common a decade ago and adopting much more convivial attitudes. Very sensible, that.
Only one sour note: the piped cheap scent, regrettably out of sync with the class of the place; more like third-rate nightclub.
Ratings – People: ■■■■. Look/Feel: ■■□□
Verdict: more modern nightclub than Wonderland City in intention but admirable staff and views
Back to the Coral Room
It isn’t surprising that The Bloomsbury Hotel’s delectable Coral Room was a mong the 2023 RBDA nominees. Though its boldly vibrant, yet refined, high-ceilinged space is flattered by daylight, the suffused lighting from the custom-made mid-century-style chandeliers works too. The place is visually excellent, and we’ve been there before, of course – it was nice to come back.
It was rather disappointing however, with the area north of Oxford Street still heaving with customers, to be informed at around 10 PM that the kitchen was closed. Much as we love retro touches, a return to the dreary era of ‘closed by 9:30’ London is not what we wish for. The kind waitress, however, showed initiative in accessing the (24hr) room service menu of the hotel and we enjoyed the cheese platter.
Cocktail ennui had set in by this time (and they rarely complement food well) so I opted for one of the Coral Room’s interesting and extensive collection of British méthode champenoise offerings. They’ve also a good selection of the French stuff. Cocktails cost £16.
Ratings – People: ■■■□. Look/Feel: ■■■■
Verdict: solidly part of the Wonderland City firmament and worth repeat visits