Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Guinea Grill, Mayfair

For much the same reason I wouldn't write a blisteringly-objective 1,000-word critique of a friend's dinner party, I've never been comfortable posting about restaurants where I'm friendly with the owners. And because most of the people I'm friendly with are at least as enthusiastic about eating out as I am (it forms the basis of most of my relationships these days), the restaurants they run tend to be amongst the best in London, and it's sometimes a shame that I've never found a way of featuring them on the blog.

But this is Fortieth Birthday Month, normal rules don't apply (I've decided), and so I'm going to tell you about the Guinea Grill because it really is a very special and deserves to be talked about even in such a hopelessly compromised and completely-not-objective-at-all manner as this.

Though the sign out front reads 'EST. 1675', the story of the Guinea we know today really begins in the aftermath of WWII. US generals and assorted diplomatic staff stationed at the Grosvenor Square embassy just around the corner (though not the imposing modernist building that now takes up the entire Western edge of the square; that wasn't finished until the 60s) and who regularly drank in the Guinea were pining for the dictionary-thick bone-in steaks from back home. British restaurant culture, hardly anything to shout about before the war, had taken a bit of a beating thanks to the Nazis, and even the top hotels at the time such as the Ritz or the Dorchester served food best described as boiled, and bland.

So the enterprising landlord of the Guinea had an idea. If he could get hold of a whole side of a cow, could the Yanks pay him enough to make the whole highly illegal process of bribing Scottish cattle farmers and smuggling the animal down into London during rationing worthwhile? Well yes, they could (turns out winning a war is quite lucrative), and on certain nights the front windows of the Guinea were tightly shuttered and guests took turns solemnly marking with a pencil on the carcass their desired cut. Then, over a charcoal pit in the back yard the steaks - properly seasoned and charred to medium-rare, just like in the mid-west - were enjoyed alongside enough claret to sink a battleship. Thus, 50+ years before Hawksmoor set up shop, London had its first US-style steakhouse.

Fortunately the landlord of the Guinea today, Oisin Rogers, who I first got to know when he ran the ramshackle, rollicking Ship pub in Wandsworth, doesn't have to bribe anyone to get hold of good steak - these days, it's all above board. But in most other measurable criteria the place has changed very little in the last half a century. The A La Carte menu boasts steakhouse classics such as prawn cocktail and oysters to start, and sticky toffee pudding for dessert, and it's all enjoyed in the same clubby, wood-panelled rooms with their cosy nooks and corners in which the US embassy staff roamed all those years ago.

Even better though than the main restaurant A La Carte is, in my opinion, the Guinea's bar menu. Printed on cute retro beer mats it includes such timeless joys as steak & kidney pie, devilled kidneys and grilled lamb chops, all of which - and I have close and repeated knowledge of them - are brilliant. You'll have to fight for a table in the front bar area - I've never known the Guinea to be quiet, even 6pm on a Monday evening - but to be rewarded with a golden bronzed pie in a paper ruff, its suet lid lifting to reveal chunks of tender offal and slow-cooked shin in a thick, rich red wine gravy, well, you'd wait a lifetime.

But that's not to say it's some kind of English Heritage themed restaurant, a slave to the past. Where it counts, notably the levels of service and the techniques in some of the more elaborate dishes, are very much 21st century. A few weeks ago I tried a roast grouse dish that arrived with a little offal toast and pan of smooth bread sauce, each element of which any fine dining restaurant in town would have been proud to send out. Ditto a cute fillet of salmon, skin crisp and flesh just-done, on dill crème fraîche and seasonal veg - this is as serious a kitchen as it needs to be.

There are many ways to enjoy the Guinea - as a smart restaurant, a cosy drinking den, a live music venue (Oisin hosts Irish music nights on the occasional Tuesday, where it's even more rammed in there than usual) and yes, as a fascinating slice of London history, a place of tradition and legacy but which still holds its head high amongst the fads and foams of London fine dining. But whichever of these Guinea Grills is your Guinea Grill, and however you choose to enjoy it, spare a thought for those hungry Americans sneaking into the back yard of a darkened pub in amongst the ruins of post-war Mayfair half a century ago, and of the wily landlord handing out the pencils.


This is this bit where I usually say whether I've paid for the above or not, and over the years it's fair to say I have paid for very little of what I've eaten at the Guinea. I would, though, quite happily.


Nationwide said...

I happily pay and go frequently.Last Friday, for example, we both had steaks, horseradish mash, and 'coughs' a little Chateau Cissac. By the time we left all was well with the world. It was, as ever. rammed. Mr Rogers runs a fine establishment.

Caroline said...

I wasn't able to find the bar menu on the website - are the pie prices the same as on the a la carte? Can't wait to try!