An Italian in St James’s
At the corner of St James’s and Jermyn Street, Francos is a romantic and comfortingly formal restaurant
Review by Winston Chesterfield
Though it is still one of the best preserved and historic districts of London, the 20th century – and particularly the Second World War – was not kind to St James’s.
Home to royal palaces, gentlemen’s clubs and painfully close to government offices and intelligence organisations, it’s injuries are testament to the efforts of the bombers flying above the clouds to do damage to the heart of the British establishment and Allied high command.
King Street, Pall Mall and St James’s Church on Piccadilly were all bombed in the early 1940s, as well as the grand Carlton Hotel on Haymarket, but it was a parachute mine that exploded above the roofs of Jermyn Street in April 1941 that did some of the heaviest damage in the district, including Rosa Lewis’ Cavendish Hotel, which has since been replaced by a ghastly out-of-proportion monstrosity. Amongst the seven people who died in the blast was the famous bandleader and crooner Al Bowlly, who lived in a flat on the street that was decimated by the detonation.
The beautiful Victorian Turkish baths were also destroyed in this incident, and most of the buildings between the south end of the Piccadilly Arcade and St James’s Street were severely damaged, some beyond repair. When the war ended in 1945, it was left to a victorious but broken people – property owners, shopkeepers, hoteliers, restaurateurs – to pick up the pieces, count the cost, and rebuild.
Out of these ashes rose an institution.
Franco’s, founded as Frank’s in 1946, claimed to be, in true Carlsberg fashion, ‘probably’ the first Italian restaurant in London.
Why Frank’s and not Franco’s?
Who knows. But people had probably grown tired of hearing the names of fascist dictators by this point, so good, honest ‘Frank’ was probably just the thing.
It is a happily situated establishment. At the right end of Jermyn Street – i.e. not the Lower Regent Street end – it is practically on the corner of St James’s Street, which remains one of the grandest streets in London. Its neighbours are gentlemen’s shoe and shirt makers, cigar shops and galleries, which should mean there is never an excuse for turning up to Franco’s looking sloppy.
And in fact, there is nothing sloppy about this place. It’s positively starchy, but in a very comforting and reassuring way.
Deep green awnings shade white-cloth, outdoor tables – in short supply when we arrived, it being another warm summer’s evening.
As you enter, you are met by smiling-but-formal staff in forest-green blazers and waistcoats. Framed black and white photographs of Italy and Italian things cover the walls. It’s old-world certainly, but not dated. It’s a place that’s very conscious of where it is, which isn’t always the case nowadays.
The main restaurant space is in a different room, around from the bar area – which was fairly empty when we arrived, but has lovely mirrored walls and neat little table lamps. The crowd feels very local; decidedly non-tourist.
“I love the seat set-up” enthused my companion, referring to the side-by-side chairs on tables for two, promoting quieter and more intimate conversations. This idea seems to have worked, as most of the fellow diners are a deux, with a distinct May – September flavour – common in a postcode where the pavements are littered in cigar stubs and the most common car is a Mercedes S Class.
The romantic, couple-y spirit is capitalised on by the staff, who immediately offer a glass of champagne to start (Taittinger Brut NV, £15), which we enthusiastically accept – and about which I was personally approving as I cannot stand Prosecco (which, arguably, is more appropriate).
The windows onto Jermyn Street, partially frosted, are large and handsome and afford the whole room some natural evening light as you dine, which is a rarity in smart restaurants in this neck of the woods.
The restaurant was renovated a number of years ago, along with a new brand identity that includes a logo that looks like someone has scratched out the letter F multiple times using a pen that was running out of ink.
The decoration is smart, though it does have some curiosities. Lighting is peculiar; perspex planks, like car licence plates, hang above you as a kind of plastic chandelier. Smaller, ruler sized ones are confected to be a wall sconce. They are far better lit, admittedly, but they don’t quite suit the place.
The chairs are comfortable but the whole chenille thing became unacceptably 1990s in punchy restaurants years ago. It might be less forgiving on bare legs, but leather chairs would be far more elegant, far more St James’s.
I like the David Hicks wallpaper though.
Why am I talking about the interior so much? Well, it’s important in places like this. There’s no trendy food concept, no starred chef in the kitchen, the menu doesn’t contain words you can’t pronounce or foodstuffs you didn’t realise even existed. It’s a trad Italian, with your standard antipasti, primi, secondi show.
It’s why the likes of Brasserie Zedel, The Wolesley and even Ivy Cafes are so gob-smackingly and theatrically beautiful – because they’re serving you tasty but very simple food, and this has been one of the big winners of the past few years. Not everyone can be Le Gavroche.
At Franco’s, they could make it more of a wow-inducing environment; not the full Brudnizski, just a dial-up. Even the stemware doesn’t feel of the right quality for a place with such a biblical wine list.
As I’m attending to these thoughts, a waitress makes a hushed arrival at our table with the chilled champagne. We order from the a la carte menu, though there is a set-menu available at £28 for two courses, £34 for three and £40 for four. I order the Hand-Picked Crab with Apple & Cucumber (£16) to start with my companion ordering the Italian trattoria standard, Parma Ham & Melon (£14).
Both are fairly straightforward, no nonsense dishes with clean flavours, but they feel as though they are being served by a place resting on its laurels, and definitely rather pricey given their lack of complexity.
Finishing the last of the champagne, we move onto a white, a Greco di Tufo from Vinosia (£48) advised by the sommelier. The service is attentive and sensitive, not to mention highly consistent; we did not have a single awkward encounter all evening. Slipping back into the chairs, in the hushed comfort, the low lights beginning to glow as the sun set, this is an undeniably romantic place, which might easily be imperceptible from the glowering Tod’s-wearing Euros chomping on Cubans outside.
For main courses, we both had Sea Bass from the grill (£28), which was chunky and looked promisingly flavourful but had a strong grill taste, which overpowered the fish. The overall dish had a rusticity which clashed with the white-table cloths and green uniforms, and made you look at the price and wonder what else on the menu you might have had.
The quality of the fish is excellent, but this isn’t quite enough for a place with Franco’s longstanding reputation.
For dessert, I chose the Sicilian cannolo with pistachio ice cream (£8.75) which is much better, with crisp pastry, smartly served but not fussy and a more-ish sweet-salt pistachio flavour. My companion had chocolate ice cream (£6) which was also more of a hit than the previous courses.
There is an argument for high quality ingredients over fancy concepts, simplicity and familiarity over needless invention, but it is always best allied with a finesse in delivery. And this simply has to be the case when starters are hovering around fifteen quid and your mains are almost double that.
Franco’s is an all day place, so they don’t hang everything on their evening menus; they serve small plates in the bar area till very late, have one of the most legendary breakfasts in St James’s and have a good showing for lunch too. You can even pop in for a coffee and elevenses, or a pre-dinner cocktail in the bar.
But in all fairness, a restaurant’s evening game always comes with higher expectations. On the service front, this delivers. Just the right side of formal, smartly dressed, knowledgeable and friendly, it reminded me of the service you can get in really top 2-star places. The whole team deserve special acknowledgment.
On the food, it falls short. The food isn’t bad at all, it’s just ‘fine.’ It needs to be more than ‘satisfactory’ and needs to get people saying ‘Yea, it’s all been done before, and it’s not cheap, but it’s really well done, served with flair and they really think about what they serve.’ I think it’s (probably) a bit hard to say that at the moment.
Enquiries: Franco’s 61 Jermyn Street, St James’s, London SW1Y 6LX / 0207 4992211 / francoslondon.com/