finance

Where to eat in Knightsbridge (if you don’t have a Ferrari)


The customary advice for anyone wanting to eat in Knightsbridge is to not. London’s most obnoxious borough has long been considered hostile territory for diners. Walk a mile in any direction from the door of a Knightsbridge restaurant, the theory goes, and you’re guaranteed to pass somewhere better.

Its problem is real estate. There’s simply not enough of it. As a result, Knightsbridge’s restaurant tables are priced on the same value scale as its tenements of cash-rinsing serviced apartments and its subterranean parking garages, where one space costs more than the national average for a three-bedroom house. Knightsbridge makes explicit the relationship between hospitality and commercial property, because everything here is valued by the square metre.

In such circumstances, your bill at the end of dinner can have little relation to what you ate. You’re asked instead to rent a table for a few hours, at a rate calibrated to deter you from taking up space that could otherwise have been used by someone richer.

Limiting a restaurant guide to Knightsbridge might therefore seem like a pointlessly perverse pursuit, like writing palindromes or running marathons in clown shoes. There’s an element of that, undeniably, but to blanket the whole area in cynicism is unfair. Not everywhere is a tourist trap. Not everywhere sets out to exploit the lazy indifference of unearned wealth.

A word about definitions. There’s no agreed border to Knightsbridge, and few mentions in the archives that might help lend it a character distinct from neighbouring Kensington, Belgravia and Chelsea. No trace remains of the bridge in its name, and the river it crossed, the Westbourne, had become a sewer by the 19th century.

Falling between parishes once gave Knightsbridge a shady reputation. Historian John Strype, in a 1720 update of a survey of London originally published in the late 16th century, dismisses it as “a Place of no great Account for Inns or publick Houses”, and in Moll Flanders (1722), Daniel Defoe makes reference to the Knight’s-Bridge Spring Garden as a place where rich, drunk men should expect to be robbed.

Local economics have improved markedly, helped along by the 1851 Great Exhibition in nearby Hyde Park and the arrival over the next few decades of landmark department stores Harrods and Harvey Nichols, though that feeling of grubby rootlessness still lingers. The best thing that can be said for it is there’s not much of it. Tourists expecting prestige and glamour in Knightsbridge find instead a small patch of disputed territory, an international no-man’s-land of conspicuous consumption.

These are tough times for all restaurants, however — even those with super-prime addresses and objectionable prices. Everywhere has to pay the rent somehow.

A few can rely on reputation to fill whatever time slots the government permits this week, while numerous others have been keen to test the tolerances of price blindness among their regulars. Fewer, but still some, have been striving in impossible circumstances to retain custom using hospitality rather than contempt. Those are the ones we’ll try to highlight here, because even in obnoxious boroughs it’s a fight for survival that not everyone deserves to lose.

So where to go? We should not worry too much about the chain-hotel dining rooms that have celebrity chefs attached, nor the established brands that have taken residence in Harrods and Harvey Nicks to trial their franchise-rollout plans. Some are good but few, if any, are irreplaceable. That’s less true of those who lack the backstop of a multinational corporation and a brass-plate celebrity endorsement, and whose only defence against bankruptcy is to keep customers happy.

A warning, however. Things change quickly. Even in good times, Knightsbridge attracted more than its fair share of flighty owners who skimped on payroll and routed the weekly takings through their offshore holding company. Tough times are unlikely to improve matters, and even honest operators can be sunk by the pernicious influence of opportunity costs. Generosity of spirit is tricky to maintain when the landlord weighs up each week whether their space would be more profitable as a handbag boutique, a bureau de change or a laser dermatology clinic.

The selection of restaurants below had to be redrafted several times pre-publication due to sudden closures, changes in ownership and stratospheric price hikes. It’s a landscape that will continue to shift faster than we can type, so please check the websites carefully, phone ahead and do your own research.

As to the question of how to define Knightsbridge, the arbitrary rule applied here is that no restaurant should be more than a 10-minute walk from the Serpentine, Hyde Park’s ornamental lake that is the most visible remnant of the Westbourne river. That way, if the relentless vulgarity gets too much, you have the option of throwing yourself in.

The Mantl

142 BROMPTON ROAD, london SW3 1HY

£££ | Website | Directions

  • Good for: anything that involves lamb and charcoal

  • Not so good for: fussy eaters. They are provided for here, but with not much enthusiasm

  • FYI: proximity to Harrods means the pavement tables look out on to London’s most ludicrous traffic jam. Fans of cars with stealth-bomber styling that have been wrapped in shiny plastic to resemble oversized Christmas-tree decorations will be in their element here

The Mantl offers a Turkish menu that is reasonably priced for the area . . .
. . . and includes dishes such as chargrilled octopus with mung beans and kapia peppers

No recent food trend invites scorn like the photo-opportunity eatery. Knightsbridge has become a hub for them. All along Brompton Road there are doorways garlanded in flowers, peppy slogan murals inviting selfies and displays of cakes that look like they were drawn by an anime artist. None of it has much to do with personal enjoyment, because what’s being sold is content.

At first glance, The Mantl might be lumped into the same category. It’s a photogenic place in the middle of one of Knightsbridge’s least promising strips, with a bright glassed-in kitchen covering the back wall that in combination with a lot of leather and mood lighting gives the room a “Troy McClure’s aquarium” aesthetic. At every table, phones hover over plates to record the artful placement of pomegranate seeds and flower petals.

It’s a mistake to judge The Mantl on looks alone, however. The restaurant is owned by Serdar Demir, an aeronautical engineer by training who chose instead to carry on the family business left behind in Bursa when his parents emigrated to England in 1990. A move to Knightsbridge came in 2019, after Mr Demir refined a template for upscale Turkish cooking at Skewd Kitchen in uncelebrated Cockfosters. Having built a reputation in the suburbs, he seems more cognisant than most about the importance of sourcing good produce and doing it justice.

The best things at The Mantl involve the open charcoal grill. There’s lamb-fillet shish, which before hitting the coals is given a five-day routine of marinating and resting, and a fat octopus tentacle paired with apple, mung beans and kapia peppers. Smokey-sweet pistachio lamb chops, a seemingly permanent fixture among the specials, are helped along by the clever addition of pomegranate molasses. Plenty of thought has gone into the menu, which navigates a careful line between traditional and inventive. There are perfunctory additions demanded by the neighbourhood — burgers, mac & cheese — but they are easy to avoid.

Of course it’s not cheap, though in local terms it’s not recklessly extravagant either. Readers familiar with the Turkish ocakbasi restaurants of north London will no doubt suck their teeth at the idea of paying £20 for mixed mezze or £18 for a single chicken skewer with salad. What sets The Mantl apart is that it seeks to justify the cost by delivering something better than average, whereas too many of its immediate competitors are content to put a premium price on something that’s much worse.

Maroush Beauchamp Place

38 BEAUCHAMP PLACE, London SW3 1NU

££ | Website | Directions

  • Good for: eavesdropping on the one-percenters without having to match their levels of profligacy

  • Not so good for: service, which in busy times can be brusque and occasionally drifts towards chaos

  • FYI: it’s a warren of a building that buffers the main dining areas with overspill areas that are best avoided. Their existence helps explain why some online reviews complain about exhausted decor, forgotten orders and a lack of atmosphere

Lebanese stalwart Maroush Beauchamp Place . . . 
Lebanese stalwart Maroush Beauchamp Place . . . 
. . . where ‘portions are unfashionably generous, and prices encourage over-ordering’
 . . . where ‘portions are unfashionably generous, and prices encourage over-ordering’

Maroush doesn’t belong here. It doesn’t match the English upper classes’ approach to food, which is to treat anything exotic as an inherently amusing novelty. Nor does it follow the area’s default gambit of selling moneyed tourists a ritzified approximation of what they rarely eat at home. Instead, Maroush functions as Knightsbridge’s kebab shop.

Marouf Abouzaki opened his first restaurant on Edgware Road in 1981, having arrived in London from Beirut in 1975. Next came Knightsbridge, in a handsome three-storey townhouse near the Sloane Street kitchens where Mr Abouzaki once worked.

His chain has since grown to more than a dozen restaurants, all offering a conventional approach to Lebanese standards. There’s lamb shawarma, jawaneh chicken wings and halloumi scorched by the charcoal grill. Portions are unfashionably generous, the mood is convivial and prices encourage over-ordering.

Maroush Beauchamp Place offers diners a smart dining room above the café-style ground floor, which in happier times kept serving until the early hours of the morning. Everywhere, tables heave with bread, dips and bowls with olives and raw vegetables. Wine is ordered injudiciously from a list that, at £20 a bottle for house, is cheaper a single glass at many of its neighbours.

London does not want for good Middle Eastern food. Those seeking the best should be prepared to travel, as impressive things are happening in unlicensed rooms next to the North Circular Road and from caravans in the Park Royal industrial estate. Maroush is for people who’d rather not bother with any of that. It’s a local kebab shop, albeit in a locality where late-night fast food still demands starched tablecloths and waiter service.

Haandi

7 CHEVAL PLACE, London SW7 1EU

££ | Website | Directions

  • Good for: a tower of poppadoms, a pint of Kingfisher and a sturdy curry

  • Not so good for: anything unconventional

  • FYI: There are two entrances. Most people favour the main lobby in Cheval Place, one of the neighbourhood’s more characterful streets, though there’s a clandestine appeal to ducking in through the easy-to-miss back door that abuts an OTT Moroccan bar on Brompton Road

A selection of dishes at the reassuringly familiar Haandi . . . 
A selection of dishes at the comfortingly familiar Haandi . . . 
. . . which has changed little since opening in 2000
. . . which has changed little since opening in 2000

Knightsbridge and its neighbouring boroughs do OK for south Asian restaurants. The top end is served well by Amaya, a Michelin-starred modern Indian that adds much needed theatre to the glum concrete nothingness of Halkin Arcade. Most of the others tilt their menus towards Kashmir and the north, perhaps to capitalise on trade from the High Commission for Pakistan in Lowndes Square.

The awning above Haandi claims “Northern Frontier Indian” but its menu fails to keep that promise, with a selection that wanders the subcontinent with occasional nods to east Africa. It’s the sole European outpost of a Nairobi-based restaurant group and has been one of Knightsbridge’s most consistent operators since opening in 2000, when routines such as grinding its masalas fresh each morning seemed much more exotic than they do now.

While Britain’s appreciation of regional south Asian food has advanced considerably over the past 20 years, Haandi has barely changed since opening, which in normal circumstances would be seen as a negative. But constancy is no bad thing in an area completely enslaved by fashions. The basement dining room is original kitsch rather than knowing pastiche, with wicker chairs, potted palms and napkins folded to a point. Staff seem to know all the regulars and the regulars recognise all the staff. The likes of jeera chicken, dal bukhara and peshwari naan deliver a comforting familiarity, as if the people at the stove have done it all a thousand times before. Prices mostly hold below £10 for sides and £20 for mains, which in these parts is becoming another anachronism.

It’s true but redundant to argue that the streets of Whitechapel, Southall and Wembley are lined with restaurants selling more authentic Indian and Pakistani food for much less. None of those places is within five minutes of a McLaren supercar showroom and a branch of Emporio Armani, however, which for some people is what takes priority. Haandi is for them.

Kaké by Chisou

1ST FLOOR, 31 BEAUCHAMP PLACE, LONDON SW3 1NU

£££ | Website | Directions

  • Good for: privacy in groups

  • Not so good for: privacy in pairs

  • FYI: Kaké can sit up to 10, which under current restrictions potentially only allows for one or two households or a few socially distanced couples. This set-up lends itself to family events but would not be ideal for talking through details of a divorce, except possibly for bigamists

Chef Jon Sho of the six-seat Kaké by Chisou . . .
Chef Jon Sho of the tiny Kaké by Chisou . . . 
. . . where the daily-changing menu might include horse mackerel with ginger sushi
. . . where the daily-changing menu might include horse mackerel and ginger sushi

Japanese food in Knightsbridge has two big problems. The first is that Japan’s totemic ingredients are obligatory and unavoidably expensive. To be reassured that they are experiencing luxury, a certain type of customer will demand Wagyu beef and belly cuts from tuna so rare that the Marine Conservation Society knows each one by its first name. Whether or not you order these things is irrelevant. The cost of your meal has to reflect the fact that the kitchen has in reserve several thousand pounds of quickly spoiling beef and fish in its cold store.

The second problem is Zuma. Chef Rainer Becker brought casual izakaya-style Japanese dining to Knightsbridge in 2002 and cornered the local market immediately. Zuma’s success was built on Sex and the City stylings and small plates of inoffensive, mostly forgettable food. It remains the default choice for many of the moneyed set, which makes life tough for the direct competition.

Nearby is Chisou, whose Knightsbridge and Mayfair branches have a long-established reputation for being reassuringly expensive. Kaké began as its lockdown delivery service but has somehow morphed into a sushi counter that has taken residence in what was previously the Beauchamp Place first-floor bar. It’s a self-consciously serious operation. Half a dozen or so stools face two chefs, who work in silent concentration to shape, roll and tease whatever the suppliers brought in that morning. Lunch (£50) offers choice; dinner is either a sushi selection (£100) or the full omakase (£145) and must be prepaid at booking.

AA Gill said that reviewing Japanese food is like writing about high-end hi-fi. Everything hangs on technical differences and diminishing returns, where each incremental improvement has an exponential effect on the cost. Those expert in raw fish and rice will no doubt have opinions about whether Kaké is better or worse value than the half-dozen other London Japanese restaurants operating at its level of ambition. Similarly, there are hi-fi bores who claim to hear £9,000 worth of difference between a £1,000 turntable and a £10,000 one.

Trying to justify these kind of price differentials is a game for nerds and geeks. Best leave them to it. All that needs to be known is that, for the locale, the prices charged at Kaké are not absurd, given that they buy a couple hours of intense attention from people who want to bring you lots of pretty, mostly interesting things to eat.

Il Pampero

20 CHESHAM PLACE, LONDON SW1X 8HQ

££ | Website | Directions

  • Good for: a mostly Italian wine list that doesn’t take too many liberties on the lower levels

  • Not so good for: buzz. Though the front-of-house team work hard to add some animazione, this is grown-up hotel dining of an identifiably English type

  • FYI: the name is in honour of the owner’s favourite racehorse and not a reference to nappies

Il Pampero doesn’t do lobster in the more usual Knightsbridge Italian style
The restaurant can be found in a clubbish room beneath The Hari hotel © Philip Vile

Knightsbridge’s signature dish is lobster spaghetti. It’s on every other menu and almost always delivers the same thing: a loose bundle of pasta, slick in red sauce and pocked with pink-grey knuckles of presumably lobster. Lobster spaghetti represents luxury on basic settings. The idea carries a suggestion of sunsets across the bay in Costa Smeralda, whereas the delivery is an uncomplicated slump of carbs, protein and sugars whose closest domestic relative is the fish-finger sandwich.

Il Pampero is not the sort of place to serve lobster spaghetti the way its neighbours do. The restaurant, in a clubbish room below The Hari hotel, favours a more sincere approach to Italian cooking. From the short menu you could order cacio e pepe, finished tableside in a pecorino wheel, or an unfashionably straightforward tagliatelle bolognese. Everything that can be made in-house has been, which makes the prices (£11.50 —£14.50 for starters, £17.50 —£30 for mains) not unreasonable. Control of the kitchen recently passed from Claudio Covino to his second-in-command, Carmine Giannino, but it’s hoped that his hard-graft ethos can be maintained.

Knightsbridge does not lack Italian restaurants. There are glossy, blingified international imports and famous old-timers that survive on the dwindling supplies of tourists with outdated guidebooks. Italian is also the default menu choice on the area’s prime terraces, where eating is peripheral to the performance. None of this applies to Il Pampero. It’s too discreet for the social butterflies and too straightforward for the Instagrammers. These are its main positives.

Ognisko

55 PRINCE’S GATE, EXHIBITION ROAD, LONDON SW7 2PG

£££ | Website | Directions

  • Good for: sympathetically modernised Polish comfort food

  • Not so good for: keeping a clear head

  • FYI: from the end of the second world war until the late 1980s, Poland’s presidents-in-exile held cabinet meetings here once a fortnight

Once the local of Poland’s government-in-exile, Ognisko has for 80 years . . . 
. . . served such sturdy fare as steak tartare, blood sausage and potato pancakes

The main road running through South Kensington was once known as the Polish Corridor. Poles followed their government-in-exile to west London following the fall of France in 1940, then were left stranded by the postwar Yalta Agreement that handed the old country to the Communists. What drew the first wave to the area was Ognisko Polskie, The Polish Hearth Club, which was founded in 1939 in a townhouse on Knightsbridge’s western fringe to act as a hub for officers and displaced intelligentsia.

Visits to Ognisko once suggested that for the following 70 years the intelligentsia were too busy plotting, seething and drinking to put a duster around. Refurbishment in 2013 aired out the fustiness and gave the ground-floor restaurant to Jan Woroniecki, owner of Southwark’s beloved Baltic. He has kept history on show, such as with a line of stern military portraits that glower at you from above the bar, but the past is no longer allowed to suffocate a coolly austere dining room that in good weather can spill into the private garden square.

What to expect? Steak tartare, blood sausage, dumplings, placki (potato pancakes), pickles and blinis. Nothing gets reinvented or reconstructed, with the kitchen relying on technique and careful assembly to cook the kind of things it always has except better. Service remains welcoming whether you choose to accelerate into the caviar list or stay within the confines of a set menu that for non-members costs £22 for three courses. Portions are festive and vodka, near mandatory, arrives by the carafe.

Ognisko is the kind of place that attracts a well-turned-out older crowd that’s beyond caring much about weight-watching and afternoon sobriety. It’s an ideal lunch venue for people who have no plans for the rest of the day.

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