In 1867, the disreputable streets of Soho and Leicester Square, filthy, crowded and slovenly, were no place for the society gentlemen of Victorian London to visit, and most certainly not to dine. When the German chef August Kettner and his Belgian wife, Barbe Marie Therese, moved from Paris to open one of London’s first French restaurants at 29 Church Street (now Romilly Street), it was unlikely their hope, that the great and the good could be enticed into those dirty narrow streets.

But enticed they were. For almost 150 years, the name of Kettner’s has lit up dark nights in Soho. Out of the slums, through WWI, the Roaring Twenties, the Blitz and beyond, it has served food and drink in an atmosphere of glamour and welcome, to generations of people, many of them famous.

The starry associations started early. Rumour had it that Kettner came from the kitchen of Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, and that he had been chef to Leopold I of Belgium. Although never confirmed, a certain magical air of mystique has hung over the restaurant ever since. In the 1870s, after an anonymous correspondent to The Times gave Kettner’s a stand-out review, praising not only its food and decent price, but also its impressively clean kitchen (a rarity in restaurants at that time), adventurous gastronomes came flocking. The restaurant built up a loyal clientele of writers, artists, actors and even royalty. Infamously, Oscar Wilde invited a slew of handsome young men to dine with him in the upstairs private dining rooms or cabinets particuliers. Kettner’s and its rooms and menus are discussed in the transcript of Wilde’s 1895 libel case against the Marquess of Queensberry, which concluded disastrously for the playwright.


Those intimate little dining rooms were also said to have been a favourite haunt of King Edward VII and his mistress, the actress Lillie Langtry – although the myth that they built a tunnel between the restaurant and the nearby Palace Theatre is sadly unfounded (the theatre wasn’t built until after their relationship had ended).

Kettner himself died just 10 years after opening the restaurant. His widow and her new husband took over, followed by other charismatic individuals and families who have all helped to weave a fascinating history over the decades. It has gone through bankruptcy and bombing – it was partly damaged during the Blitz but never closed. Diners have included Sir Winston Churchill; Bing Crosby, who performed outside to a huge crowd in the 1940s; Agatha Christie; Margaret Thatcher; and hundreds of stars of stage and screen. In the 1980s, Robert De Niro arranged to meet Bananarama there after the release of their hit song, ‘Robert De Niro’s Waiting’ (although they had to wait for him in the end).

The Jacobean Suite

On the top two floors, rooms, including the former cabinets particuliers, have become 33 bedrooms with original Georgian floorboards and fireplaces and a plush but cosy interior inspired by the 1920s and French boudoirs. Previously a banqueting room, the Grade II-listed first-floor room with its wood panels and white plasterwork ceiling is now the Jacobean Suite, which has its own private stairway leading directly up from Greek Street.

Plasterwork

Downstairs, the main shape and feel of the listed dining room has been maintained, retaining its famous details – the white floral plasterwork that looks like piped icing and its heritage wall mirrors. It has the comforting atmosphere of an old French restaurant or bistro, rather than a grand dining room. The food is, of course, French, inspired by the past menus from Kettner’s, and using locally sourced British ingredients.

The Piano Bar

In the Piano Bar, a long, hammered copper bar with a rose marble top, runs along against the length of the window. An upright vintage piano rather than a baby grand ties in with the brief from Jones that the Townhouse ‘should never feel inaccessibly fancy’. At the end of the Piano Bar is the Champagne Bar, with a monochrome mosaic tiled floor in an early Art Deco swirling design that dates back to the 1920s. Curtains can be drawn to turn it into a clandestine, late-night lounge.

Art Collection

Work started at the same time as the refurbishment of the original Soho House club, in 2016. The maze-like block of seven intertwining Georgian houses has made it one of the group’s most complicated design and build projects. But now Kettner’s lives again. The entire building has been restored and reimagined, taking inspiration from its history – and its naughty reputation.

The Kettner’s Townhouse collection of art is a wry nod to the illicit love affairs played out within its walls, with site specific installations by Danny Augustine and Sara J Beazley. The spirits of Kettner’s past may have been put to rest, but they haven’t been forgotten.


Now, the restaurant has undergone another transformation becoming, in the hands of Soho House & Co, Kettner’s Townhouse. Founder Nick Jones admits that Kettner’s has always drawn his eye. Since the 1980s, when he opened Over The Top on the same block as Cafe Boheme, he says he coveted the landmark. The original Soho House at 40 Greek Street and Kettner’s are located back to back, separated by a small courtyard, and so have always been intimate neighbours. When the opportunity came to take over the restaurant from Gondola Group, the Pizza Express holding company who had come to own Kettner’s, Jones leapt at the chance. ‘Kettner’s has got such a unique history that no one wanted to see it disappear. We needed to keep it open and celebrate it again,’ he says.

Words: Kate Finnigan

Kettner's Townhouse

Visit our 33-bedroom hotel, restaurant and champagne bar in a historic Georgian building in London's Soho.