Following on from last month’s King’s Ginger adventure that looked at of one of the more formal and sensible royal appointments that His Majesty King Edward VII undertook, namely the opening of the Bethnal Green Museum, this time I’m returning to his saucier side. Follow me to Soho and a place of secret tunnels, hidden pleasures, dancing, drinking and revelry… the historic Kettner’s.
Auguste Kettner was a chef to Napoleon who came to England and opened his restaurant in 1867. He served French food with an experimental and unusual edge, at a time when French culture, couture and cuisine were beginning to become hugely fashionable. The site he chose was in the heart of Soho, originally four narrow Georgian townhouses, which he had knocked together to create a generously sized place suitable to entertain celebrities and later, royalty. It was sumptuously decorated, with wood panelling and beautiful architectural details.
Oscar Wilde dined there, a fact verified by the Oscar Wilde Society; and latterly Agatha Christie and Bing Crosby as well as a host of (unnamed) modern-day celebs. But they aren’t why I’m writing about it, of course.
Our favourite ginger-drinking monarch was a regular visitor to Kettners, both before and after he ascended the throne. He used to entertain his favourite mistress (and former subject of a blog of her own), the lovely Lillie Langtry in what is now known as The Apartment. This in and of itself is not particularly remarkable. What is noteworthy, is the fact that the king ordered a secret tunnel to be built between the fashionable Kettners and the nearby Palace Theatre of Varieties (or simply the Palace Theatre as it is now known). On my private show-round for this piece, I was taken down to the depths of the kitchen to have a look at the tunnel entrances, now sadly bricked up and used as a very unglamorous storage area. I snapped some photos of the iron bars and antique brickwork just for general interest… Loo rolls have been cropped out.
The place is like a rabbit warren underneath, and though it’s all fitted with modern kitchen equipment, it’s fun to imagine Edward and Lillie creeping hand in hand after she’d finished a stage performance, through the rooms and up the back stairs to the Apartment. For dancing, quaffing champagne, partying until dawn and all sorts of un-Royal tomfoolery, of course.
The place itself has both changed in the 150 years since and yet somehow stayed the same, enduring an awful lot in its long history.
After its early heyday, Kettner’s star waned until, by the latter half of the 20th century, it had become a pizza restaurant – all faded splendour and peeling paint. Lots of people were up in arms when it got a makeover in 2008-9, claiming it had lots its character, but today, it does have a Victorian/Edwardian grandeur. The original features in the Brasserie might be painted a modern gray, but you can still feel the shadow of the past.
The Apartment is, as glimpsed above, still with all its original dark wood panelling, and is a lovely place, featuring some original bits and antique acquisitions, like the gramophone. Though I can only imagine the opulence it must have had in Bertie’s day. And on the same floor, now sadly long gone are the rooms where, legend has it, King Edward used to have regular baths, so much did he enjoy his stays at Kettner’s. I’m positive that he wouldn’t have been in the bathtub alone, though.
The grand piano has old songsheets dotted around its top, including Tommy Lad, which would probably have been playing somewhere during one of King Edward’s parties in 1907.
Downstairs is a little more modern, with a cocktail bar famous for its champagne selection, and cocktails named after our story’s characters.
The Sour VII. Delicious, but would be better with a dash of KGL!
Neither the Sour VII nor Lillie’s Lemonade above contained any King’s Ginger. In fact, the bar didn’t carry it at all! Lucky I visited really, as they’ve assured me they will be making the necessary enquiries to try it right away.
If you get a chance to visit Kettner’s (after they’ve stocked up on The King’s Ginger of course), then do ask to have a look and a sit in the historic Apartment, just to soak up the atmosphere and some of the fun that must have happened up there. I certainly did!
As ever, please look at The King’s Ginger site, the News page contains links to every one of my adventures so far. These are truly the most exciting articles I do, for every one is different and a total joy to write! I really hope you enjoy reading them. Please do leave me a comment if you do.
And, as I get asked it A LOT, on the Where to Buy page, you can find a list of all retailers, as well as a drop-down to find it in Australia, America and Canada! Get some in while it’s chilly, Northern Hemisphere!
Until next time,