Step through the inconspicuous glass doors of a glitzy bar and be enchanted by the melodic jazz notes and genteel laughter. Feel like a superstar as you glide down a magnificent sweeping staircase once graced by royalty itself. Her Majesty the Queen, Princess Diana, Princess Margaret and Prince Harry have all passed through the very same doors: you join an elite club of VIPs when you visit this Mayfair high society venue. This is the extraordinary world of Quaglino’s, where I was recently invited to a social event.
With a long and illustrious history, Quaglino’s is a Mayfair institution beloved by celebrities and royalty. It began life at the end of the roaring twenties in the Jazz Age when Charleston parties were all the rage, and the Art Deco grandeur remains to this date. Descending the staircase teleports you back to the Jazz Age; you can imagine yourself on the glamorous set of The Great Gatsby with a grand view of the central golden 30-degree bar and stage beyond.
For over nine decades this establishment has hosted royals from the Queen and Prince Philip who set the precedence for further aristocratic visits, to soirees between silver-screen stars. The venue has been linked to the Profumo Affair and the scene of July Garland’s ill-fated wedding. After ‘Quags’ was name-dropped in the hit tv show Absolutely Fabulous in the nineties it was revamped for the masses. Yet it never lost an appeal in aristocratic circles for it continues to be the venue of choice for many ‘A-list’ celebrity after-show parties.
Be transported back to two eras of glamour: the roaring 20s and glittering 50s
When Quaglino’s first opened, Londoners were dancing the Charleston and King George V was on the throne. If walls could talk, then Quaglinos’ would certainly have a story or two to tell. Few dining destinations in London have a history as rich. From the 1930s through the 1950s, it was popular among the British aristocracy, including the royal family. It was founded by Piedmont restaurateur Giovanni Quaglino in 1929 at the height of the American Prohibition.
One of the restaurant’s early legends was Princess Diana’s step-grandmother Dame Barbara Cartland who helped to cement its reputation as one of the most sophisticated nightspots in London. After Queen Elizabeth was crowned, she became the first reigning monarch to dine here resulting in British aristocrats flocking to follow in her footsteps. Indeed, the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother chose this as the venue to celebrate the British equestrian team’s gold medal at the Stockholm Olympics. Meanwhile, Princess Margaret had a private table permanently reserved for her named ‘The Royal Enclosure’, while Princess Anne hosted charity events here.
Eventually, the glamour faded, and Quaglino’s closed in 1977, then in 1993 Sir Terence Conran brought it back to life. During this era, Princess Diana is said to have snuck in through the kitchen on occasion to avoid paparazzi, while Princess Alexandra and Sarah Ferguson enjoyed being seen here. Now owned by Conran’s successor company, D&D London, the restaurant was revived once more in late 2014 and one of the first customers through the doors was Prince Harry. And it is not just the bluebloods who book tables here, Elton John’s flash after-parties for Billy Elliott and Rocketman were legendary.
Art Deco cocktails
Once you’ve made your entrance, the first place to head to is the elegant Art Deco cocktail bar for a journey through time. Open the famous little red cocktail menu and peruse the chapters which contain beverages that tell the story of this legendary establishment. For instance, the Cheating Wife references Quaglino’s spouse’s adultery with his best friend. The drink itself is a curious blend of London No.1 gin with berries, strawberry and marshmallow and beetroot. The iconic ‘Q’ Clock is a playful gin martini paired with Cointreau and Vermouth tipped through a glass spiral into a vessel with a ‘sundial’ on top.
Meanwhile, The Prince of Wales documents the young royals 1950s visits and comprises a classic blend of Johnnie Walker Black Label, honey, coffee syrup and frangelico topped with egg white. The Affair nods to the scandalous affair of John Profumo and Valerie Hobson, who were exposed at Quaglino’s on the evening that the Profumo Affair became public knowledge. The main ingredient is Havana 3-year-old rum, blood orange liqueur and pineapple juice, while the Fresh as a Daisy contains Hendricks’ gin, cucumber, elderflower liqueur, apple and lemon juice.
The Time Machine transports you to a bygone era as you sip the mandarin-infused Stolichnaya, manzanilla, peach liqueur, grapefruit bitters. The cocktail is presented amid a dramatic effect of ‘ancient forest fog’. Meanwhile, Duke’s Strength honours the life of the late Prince Philip. It is a blend of Plymouth Navy Strength Gin, Greek olive oil, Belsazar Vermouth dry, with pickled tomato accompanied by a consommé.
Belle Epoque is a testament to Quaglino’s more contemporary history throughout the nineties along with The Absolutely Fabulous, which blends Tanqueray No. Ten Gin with rose vermouth, baby basil, lemon and chamomile. Of course this is a double entendre as it was indeed the favourite haunt of Edwina and Patsy in the hit TV show.
Dining and entertainment
When it is time for dinner, descend the famous staircase and take your seat in full view of a spectacular stage. As you settle down under vaulted ceilings, velvet drapery, huge mirrors, dramatic lighting, dining is a decadent affair. The menu is designed by executive head chef Jack Smith. Choose from an array of al a carte options including oysters and caviar as well as starters of beef tartare or whisky and maple syrup glazed salmon.
The spiced Magret duck breast or the Herefordshire beef fillet are both hard to choose between, while to finish, a good recommendation is the cherry and white chocolate crème brûlée or dark chocolate marquise with rose and raspberry sorbet. Each dish is exquisitely presented like a work of art on the plate.
Quaglino’s also boasts two stunning private dining rooms, once frequented by The Prince of Wales in his heyday, with the capacity to seat up to 40 guests for an intimate lunch or dinner, or 60 guests for a stand-up reception.
Around 9pm, the live jazz act begins on the stage of the mezzanine-level bar downstairs dining room, followed by a midnight DJ who spins the decks until 3am, Trevor Nelson is a regular. There’s entertainment seven days a week. Walking down the iconic staircase to the main bar is to follow in the most famous footsteps from Judy Garland to Michael Hutchence, Wallace Simpson to Princess Margaret. All and more have sipped champagne and partied until late.
Going to the bathrooms is exciting too, just beneath the stairs, pull back the curtains, step into a black and white room with beautiful mirrors and imagine yourself a belle of the 1920s as you powder your nose.
Quaglino’s is like a vintage wine that keeps getting better with age. Join the rich cast of British high society characters who have been right here as well. It is a wonderful place to be seen as you sip your cocktail and eat your meal in the finest company, knowing the great and the good have too. Enjoy the splendour of this grand address in St James’, for an invitation to Quaglino’s is like no other.
Address: 16 Bury St, St. James’s, London SW1Y 6AJ
Phone: 020 7930 6767