It has local restaurants, experimental places and Michelin juggernauts. It has world-renowned star-chef vehicles, City enterprises raucous with the excitable post-5pm crowd, and successful pop-ups that have grown permanent but still won’t accept reservations. I reckon I could dine out every night of the year at a different place, and probably have 365 good-to-excellent meals. But one question still vexes me, year in, year out. Where can I take my parents for dinner in London?
Enter The Game Bird. This is the in-house restaurant of the Stafford Hotel, tucked away in a funny internecine little alleyway off-off-off Piccadilly. You follow the twists of the narrow street in on itself, and suddenly it opens out to become a rather grand hotel entrance, over whose entrance the hobson’s choice of US and UK flags flutter.
Unobtrusive cocktail jazz gives way to, with some inevitability, the collected works of pop’s most boring scion, Norah Jones
The restaurant is large yet cosy: with its soothing, warmly muted colour palette it has something of the air of a members’ club, or perhaps an upscaled version of the drawing room in your very fancy elderly relatives’ house. There are ionic columns, an art deco drinks bar, taxidermy (a pheasant, captured in a pose of understandable startlement) and an odd display case of onions. Banquettes and bar seats are plush and periwinkle blue; at the tables, low-backed red leather armchairs have tapestry print backs – in vain I looked for a matching tapestried fireguard over the fireplace – and there is an eclectic range of art on the walls, from middling landscapes and op art to a very Sixth Form charcoal of a young lady sprouting feathery tendrils. Unobtrusive cocktail jazz gives way to, with some inevitability, the collected works of pop’s most boring scion, Norah Jones. It’s all carefully considered and comforting – no surprises, plenty of nice and noteworthy detail.
A scent of cigar smoke seemed to hang over the entrance – either a nostalgic sensory illusion recalled from experiences in drawing rooms of yesteryear, or a mis-smelling of in-house smokery, whose outcome presently arrives at our table: a selection of smoked fish presented on (yes!) a hostess trolley. I can’t resist smoked eel, and was duly served four pieces that looked a little lost on a very large round white plate, even with the piquant pickled-cucumber relish; my companion opted for a Balvenie whisky-cured salmon whose translucent slices rather better filled the plate and which the waiter – clad like his colleagues in a deeply scooped midnight-blue waistcoat that I rather envied – finished by spritzing the dish with whisky from an atomiser. The resulting flavour is suggestive rather than distinctive, but this is all about the performance. Should conversation be flagging, it’s something to talk about.
The ambience remains convivial, despite the scale of the room. The clientele skewed older – aside from a small boy playing quite contentedly with crayons and a model bulldozer at the next table beside his jetlagged parents – to the degree that it made me feel happily young. Service was attentive but not overbearing; the sommelier dealt well with one very wine-knowledgeable diner (my guest) and one not at all so (me), guiding us to by-the-glass selections without making either of us feel daft.
“The Game Bird” sounds like a moniker imposed on the restaurant by (or maybe to appeal to) a cheesily beaming 1970s “entertainer” now superannuated and/or under investigation by Operation Yewtree
The most recent menu, overseen by head chef James Durrant, is stuffed with the things, themselves stuffed. While I sometimes find the borderline putrescence of really gamey birds too much for my palette, a whole stuffed partridge – “like a very, very good chicken”, said the waiter, momentarily distracting me with a mental image – was perfect for me: plump and full of meat, meaning relatively little guilt that I didn’t pick its skinny limbs clean too. My attention had been taken by mention of Chicken Kiev elsewhere on the menu, but I’m glad I steered clear: that’s comfort food too far. My companion had roast pigeon, the eponymous Game Bird itself, which she pronounced perfect. Her side order of triple cooked chips never arrived – perhaps they were still being cooked – leaving us to pick at a side of red cabbage, one of those too-healthy vegetables I can only eat in small forkfuls and when interleaved with something starchy and much less virtuous. Chips down, I had pudding instead (and it’s definitely pudding here, not “dessert”), a perfectly serviceable ginger sponge with poached pear.
Nothing was ever going to stagger us with novelty, but that’s not the point – that’s what those other places are for. Here it’s all about straightforward, classic British protein-and-two-veg dishes, cooked extremely well, in a comfortable room. All in all, it’s virtually unimpeachable – a rare word these days. And yet, and yet: we need to talk about that one big misstep. “The Game Bird” sounds like a moniker imposed on the restaurant by (or maybe to appeal to) a cheesily beaming 1970s “entertainer” now superannuated and/or under investigation by Operation Yewtree – nudge nudge, wink wink. Worse than that, it does deep disservice to a restaurant significantly more sophisticated and sober than this feeble Carry On punchline of a name suggests. That aside, my parents will love this place – I certainly did. C
The Game Bird, The Stafford London, 16-18 St James’s Place, London SW1A 1NJ
020-7518 1234; thestaffordlondon.com