I’m agonising over what to wear. Until recently it was no problem: lunch at a two Michelin star restaurant in posh Knightsbridge called for a smart suit, heels and a power blow-dry. But Marcus Wareing has given his once swanky restaurant in The Berkeley a relaxed makeover, promising more informal menus, service and decor in line with modern tastes. Hip, thrusting America, not stuffy old France, will be calling the shots. Oh God, what does that mean? Will it be jeans and trainers? What exactly is smart casual for women? Will wearing a jacket look irretrievably middle aged and middle class? Dull, in fact? It’s so puzzling.
In the end, I go disguised as an Upper East Side New York tourist with pale pink silk roll neck, slim pants and a long cardigan in fine cashmere. And instead of killer heels, shiny brown lace-ups by Alice Temperley.
I needn’t have worried. The dining room hasn’t turned into noisy Nando’s; it’s an airy space cleverly divided into three connecting areas with chic, discreet colours and large windows down two sides. There are curved brown leather banquettes and comfortable chairs in teal blue leather with brown studded trim and tables are covered with – bliss – proper table linen. And the staff, reassuringly, are dressed in suits with ties and warm smiles. They’re pleasant and relaxed; there’s none of the balletic theatre and hoo-ha that characterised the old restaurant. The new Marcus is lean, modern and democratic, and it suits them.
The rich colours and heavy luxury of the previous life are replaced by a lighter mood hinting at Art Deco with shagreen panels and narrow strips of mirror. Discreet grey is the prevailing colour, with hints of caramel and pale blue in the carpet. I adore the translucent window blinds, which are like bands of fine metal mesh. I don’t adore the bulbous modern chandeliers, nor the artwork on the walls (somewhat apologetic apart from a bold riff on Andy Warhol), but you can’t like everything.
However, when it comes to the food, there are no disappointments. Wareing has no intention of jeopardising his two Michelin stars but he wants diners to have fun. “If someone wants just a single course they can,” he says. “Or they can have the full à la carte or a tasting menu. I’m not going to tell my customers how to eat.” He says that the old concept of “fine dining” existed chiefly in the minds of chefs who thought it would win Michelin approval. He wants to appeal to people “who aren’t interested in chefs or fine dining – they want enjoyment.” The menus, therefore, are clear, precise and in English, eschewing tiresome details of provenance except to identify meat: Galloway beef, Herdwick lamb, Rhug estate pork. The clearest sign of change is in the separate lunch menu with its small selection of tasting plates alongside starters and main courses, cheese and desserts. All items are separately priced and, according to the new Marcus philosophy, you could just pop in for a plate of Scottish salmon with shallot, lime and anchovy.
Wareing has no intention of jeopardising his two Michelin stars but he wants diners to have fun
I start with a dish of green asparagus with egg and aioli. If you think that sounds like a slimmer’s dish, think again: Jersey Royals are sautéed golden brown, the rich garlic mayonnaise is irresistible, and the egg is fried. But hey, who cares? My fishy main course is a bowl of gleaming white pollock with lobster sauce, cocoa beans, yellow endive and tiny fragments of razor clam. It is beautifully balanced and absolutely delicious.
The wine list is vast. I ask the sommelier, Joris, for advice on what’s available by the glass to complement my dessert, a mascarpone and blood orange streusel (just the right combination of fresh and rich flavours, with the crunchy texture of shortbread). He suggests an Austrian beerenauslese from the Burgenland near Hungary, which proves not only an ideal match but to have an alcohol content of just 11.5%, unlike so many “stickies” and pudding wines.
This is all so different from the olden days of grand restaurants when snooty sommeliers could make you feel small if you didn’t head for established labels from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Joris doesn’t try to upsell or belittle – he feels like a friend. He shows me his new toy, the Coravin system that allows wine to be extracted without opening the cork and lets diners sample very special wines by the glass, including 2001 Corton Charlemagne, a 1998 Vega Sicilia, and a 1993 Romanée Conti (the prices are to match: a glass of Romanée Conti will set you back £400). The Coravin process, conducted with much panache at the table, is the only bit of real restaurant theatre I see at Marcus, but it’s great fun.
When I visit, the crowd is made up of pleasant, normal people speaking in everyday voices instead of hushed, respectful whispers. There’s a young couple on a hot date and she’s having the vegetarian tasting menu (the chap is clearly a saint), and another celebrating a birthday. Nearby is a fantastically posh older pair – he’s a tall silver fox, she’s a bohemian intellectual who might once have run Bletchley Park. Two tables of earnest diners on gastronomic pilgrimages from the Far East take photographs of their food and each other; and a group of men in suits talk about money and give the wine list a good seeing to. Despite Wareing’s description of a new informality, this remains a destination restaurant in a very smart hotel, and I can’t believe people will just “drop in”. They’ll still dress up in the evening, and enjoy doing so.
But if the customers haven’t changed, Marcus Wareing himself has. More than a chef (though he’s in the kitchen five days a week), he’s a restaurateur and successful businessman, and this has given him a new confidence. He has two other restaurants: the Gilbert Scott at St Pancras station and a new opening this summer, Tredwell’s at Seven Dials, on the cusp of Soho and Covent Garden. He’s determined to show he can handle the middle market as well as the gourmet scene. Yes, his Knightsbridge flagship looks and feels different, but the food is still superb. I’ll be back. C
Marcus, The Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7RL
0207 235 1200; marcus-wareing.com