In London, we live in times of extraordinary creativity and fast paced development, but also times with increasing respect for maintaining living links to our cultural past, so often lost when little concern is found for values hidden in history. This is not the case in the recent restoration of the iconic Kettner’s in Soho undertaken by Soho House Group. Kettner’s Book of Tales, found in every room, is a telling manifestation of the care and respect that has contributed to a most tasteful refurbishment, giving the guest an opportunity to relate to the place’s glamorous distant past.
“It’s all about affordable glamour,” Soho House’s founder Nick Jones said in an interview when Kettner’s Townhouse opened. “I showed Kirsty [Young, the broadcaster and Jones’s wife] around it and she said: ‘This is definitely the sort of place you’ll take people you want to sleep with rather than people you work with’.” Inspired by the art deco and elegant but discreet entrance, we, indeed, find ourselves in a rather romantic mood upon arrival, so the champagne bar seems a splendid idea once checked in. The bar features an original mosaic tiled floor and early-deco 1920s design providing a most pleasing backdrop to our two glasses of Pol Roger, our way to relate to the past.
Established in 1867 by August Kettner, rumoured to have been chef to Napoleon III, Kettner’s was one of the first restaurants in London to serve French food. Popular with historical figures and creatives throughout its 151-year history, legend has it that King Edward VII courted his mistress, actress Lillie Langtry, in its cabinets particuliers (private dining rooms). Remaining open through both World Wars, Kettner’s entertained visitors including Sir Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Oscar Wilde, Bing Crosby and Margaret Thatcher.
After resting in our quaint two floor room, unlikely to have any parallel in the London’s hotel scene, not for luxury’s sake but more the sheer ingenuity and distinct character that has been created, the French restaurant at Kettner’s Townhouse waits with a menu inspired by its past, using locally-sourced ingredients. Here again, the design retains the original Grade II listed details, including the floral plasterwork and mirrors that line the walls. The food in the dining room and the piano bar takes a subtle but only slight bow to Auguste Kettner’s rich haute cuisine. We opt for the Turbot Provençal with saffron sauce and Lake District farmers’ fillet of beef with fries and ‘sauce au poivre’.
Throughout our stay we are entertained by the Kettner’s Townhouse art collection, inspired by the buildings’ risqué reputation, with site-specific installations by Danny Augustine and Sara J Beazley. Works in the Champagne Bar reference a series of lost murals, partly uncovered during the restoration. The murals were preserved before being recovered behind the bar walls, and after photographing the decades-old work, Beazley incorporated the imagery into silkscreen prints. In the bedrooms, the artwork mixes modern Soho with vintage and Georgian references.
If there ever was a reason to enjoy breakfast in bed, then the visual pleasures in our room may well have contributed. A perfect accompaniment to the delicious assortment brought to the room and somehow apt, as the end of our stay drew near, was the voice of Nat King Cole coming out of the Roberts Radio sitting on our bed table: "Unforgettable in every way and forever more that's how you'll stay".
After an unforgettable stay, we ask, on departure, if allowed to keep our copy of Kettner’s Book of Tales, this unassuming quaint little book, but revealing so much of the essence of fashionable London life in earlier times. After a read it becomes abundantly clear that Kettner’s Townhouse celebrates Soho and its local community from 1867 to today, marking a new chapter for this historic building. And so, after enjoying the many facets of this chic Soho address, we think we can well imagine its olden days of promise and pleasure. Although our contemporaries will flock to make good use of Kettner’s many facilities, in which way or form they may choose, surely significant figures of times past will have their place here, at least in our memory. As Kate Finnigan, writer of Kettner’s Book of Tales, puts it: “The spirits of Kettner’s past may have been put to rest, but they haven’t been forgotten.”