The problem with getting to review nice restaurants is that you have to write about them afterwards. It’s not the writing part I’m complaining about, you understand (in fact, I’m quietly competent at that — an A in my A Level English mock, which is apparently what counts these days.) It’s more the worry that someone might actually read it. Imagine — someone out there gets hold of the thing, and they read it, and they take on board all the things you have to say about the place you’re reviewing, all those lovely things about the Macon Villages and the atmosphere and the custard, and they think “well, that sounds like fun — perhaps I’ll trot over myself,” and then they actually do.
Before you know it, before the weekend’s out, before you’ve even had time to upload the Instagram photo (grid, not story), the place is filled to the back teeth with people like you, all in sun-faded blue linen shirts, all with better hair, and you can’t get a look-in for love nor money, and there’s no lovely terrace tables left for you and your mother who’s come all the way down from Oxford, and you have to retreat meekly to the King’s Road and make do with the Ivy Chelsea Garden or something (I know).
You’re a victim of someone else’s success, in other words — and that’s really unfair. How dare they be this cordial and welcoming? Don’t they realise how hard it is to review a place like this? How do these people sleep at night? Anyway, my message in the review that follows is broadly this: don’t go to Stanley’s, because I love it.
The first thing to note is the space. It’s a grand old courtyard, elevated gently from street level, hidden down Sydney Street, just off the King’s Road. Europeans are good at courtyards, can’t get enough of the things. But in London a decent cloister is a rare beast (I think they have some nice spots down at Westminster Abbey, actually, but they’ll tell you off for smoking). We just don’t trust the weather, I think, or perhaps worry too much that our gossip might bounce around the walls and get to the neighbours.
So this place is a bit of a gem. And Stanley’s has made the most of it. The space is big enough to feel open and airy, but compact enough to feel chummy. It’s got a clever orangery-type set up on your right, and brasserie-style green leather banquettes and good chairs, and there are no neighbours to worry about so you can guffaw just as loudly as you like (lots of guffawing last night, actually).
It’s largely covered by grand parasols and awnings, so it never feels draughty or exposed, but you can still see the night sky and the ancient, tall trees that poke up above the Cotswold stone. There are potted plants and flowers and creepers, but without the overblown pageantry of, um, other places nearby — nor the cynical ploy for Instagrammy backdrops and concomitant posing out-of-towners.
The wine list is smart and fair (we had the Macon Villages, as I think I mentioned, which was super and good value), and everyone cuts around with elegant half pints of draught lager and cigarettes (you can smoke here!). The bellinis, made from fresh white peaches crushed that afternoon by head chef Olivia Burt — previously of Joel Robuchon and Claridge’s — were excellent. It’s France without the quarantine. The continent sans the shame (or the schoolboy French).
Ah. The food. Easy to forget to eat when you’re having fun. Simpler to open the floodgates on the rosé and chew on some nocellaras, sometimes. But do try to force something down. The menu is lean and nifty. Three starters, three mains, three puddings. But it’s handsomely executed. We had the steak tartare, studded with tiny mushrooms and little dollops of an umami mustard. It was gorgeous, and just right. There was also a white crab meat little thing, with fresh apple. Very clever. Then came some Dexter beef, cooked precisely, and some lovely buttery potatoes to boot. And then pudding — plums in custard (very good) and a salted chocolate something-or-other which caused a bit of a scrap. Trés bien.
What’s most remarkable of all, though, is that the young team behind this place (founder Hugh Stanley, chef Olivia, GM Peter Pearson) seem to have created a place which has an instant atmosphere, an instant set, an instant establishedness. If I wasn’t so self conscious I’d call it a vibe.
Hugh and Peter glide around, making sure everyone’s happy and content, admitting that it’s all a little mad, and perhaps that they haven’t really slept — but never looking frazzled or under siege. Everyone is having a good time. Everyone is happily watered. The diners around me seem relaxed and at home, like they’ve been coming here for years — instant, oven-baked regulars. This is a kind of magic in itself. A new old haunt. A lovely evening guaranteed. Please don’t go.