An Elegant little Guide for Elegant Establishments
Our literary guru(ess) is smitten by Master Sherwood’s dress sense – and rather taken by the witty little guide he has written….
Article by Kate Slotover Photograph by Andy Barnham
How to plan the perfect night out in London? How indeed… The digital age allows us to trawl through restaurant reviews but this can be a dispiriting activity tinged with low-level anxiety that something better might be only a click away. Furthermore the crowded room that is the internet makes it hard for us to find voices we know we can trust. Perhaps it’s time for us to reconsider the charms of a neatly printed guidebook kept within reach of our desk or favourite armchair.
Billed as ‘an unabashed companion to the very finest experiences in the world’s most cosmopolitan city’ James Sherwood’s Discriminating Guide to London follows in the footsteps of a long-forgotten guide conceived by American businessman James B. Sherwood, founder and chairman of Belmond (owners of the Orient Express and the Manoir au Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire among others).
The first Sherwood Guide originated as a British version of the Gault Millaut guide Sherwood had relied upon when he was based in Paris. He commissioned like-minded American journalist Susan Blackburn to write it. The primary focus was restaurants, but there was also a list of shops and a ‘must-see’ cultural selection. In 1975, Sherwood persuaded William Heinemann to produce the first edition of 5,000 copies. To his, and no doubt the publisher’s, surprise the edition sold out. The following year the Heinemann asked for a new edition which had a print-run of 50,000 copies. This also sold out. Sherwood realised he was onto something and the guidebook could have continued but tragically Susan Blackburn died and the project with her.
Enter another James Sherwood, fashion journalist, doyen of Royal Ascot and author of books such as Savile Row and The Perfect Gentleman for Thames & Hudson. Sherwood had been given a copy of the original guide by a friend as a present. Amused but also intrigued he proposed a modern reinvention of the book as his next commission and Thames & Hudson accepted.
We meet at Savile Row tailors Henry Poole where Sherwood is working on their archive (an extraordinary collection of customer records dating back to 1846). In person Sherwood is quite simply the most beautifully dressed man your Riddle reviewer has ever met. He composes himself elegantly on a sofa and like Beau Brummell, that legendary 18th-century arbiter of taste whose statue presides over Jermyn Street today, Sherwood seems like a man who would care if your cravat was not perfectly starched. Combine a certain fastidiousness with a Bertie Wooster-ish delight in going out and socialising, throw in a dash of cynicism and social ennui and you have an unusual guidebook author. If Sherwood aspires to anything, though, it is to emulate his literary hero Samuel Pepys. ‘He was a great writer and he made people laugh’, Sherwood comments. ‘A writer’s job is to cheer people up when they listen to you, to make their lives happier.’
In keeping with the original, Sherwood has put together a selection of 70 or so restaurants, usefully grouped in categories such as ‘Where to eat in the company of beautiful people’ (Cecconis, Spring) and ‘Where to eat when you want to be alone’ (Honest Burgers, Yauatcha). His descriptions are colourful and often raise a smile; an entry begins ‘an acquaintance of ours who recently lunched at The Goring exclaimed: ‘I looked at my watch and it was 1932!’ The selection is orthodox; this is not the book for discovering the latest must-try restaurant sensation. Rather it is a guide to tried and tested favourites that, like a bespoke suit, should stand the test of time, with occasional knowing nods towards newer faces on the restaurant scene.
The entries are littered with memorable one-liners, Sotheby’s café is described as ‘as small and neat as a prenuptual agreement’ while ‘criticizing a meal at [chef Claude Bosi’s restaurant] Hibiscus is rather like standing in front of a Matisse collage at Tate Modern and debating whether that precise shade of blue could be a tone lighter.’ Evaluation of food and service is vigorous but as this is predominantly a selection of favourites negative comments are generally confined to a section called ‘Not for us … but should be.’ Sherwood keeps the tone light, sometimes even flirty (waiters at Skye Gyngell’s restaurant Spring are described as ‘cute as a button in Egg-breton striped tees, canvas trousers and plimsolls’) but each entry is precise and underpinned with a detailed knowledge of London’s history that defines the restaurant not just as a place to eat but as part of the metropolitan cultural scene.
The guide took Sherwood a year to write, a fact that seems surprising given how much is in it, but as he points out that’s a year going on twenty-five living in London after he moved from his native Sheffield. E. B. White in his 1949 essay Here Is New York wrote about the way that the inhabitants of the city fall into three types: those who were born there, those who commute in from the suburbs and the settlers who have adopted the city as their home. ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidarity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion,’ he wrote. Sherwood has made London a city of his own. He has a Londoner’s acute sense of the social nuances between tribes, the moneyed denizens of Mayfair, the louche all-nighters and snappy advertising execs of Soho, work-obsessed city financiers and youthful hipsters; ‘The entire façade of Hoxton Holborn is a shop window for how Generation Dr Dre headphones rolls’. The book is packed with useful tips and secrets (‘If you’d like to show off your London knowledge at the Connaught, turn right instead of left past reception and head towards the little-known candlelit Champagne Room’) but it is also an homage to the magic of London town laced with a certain amount of nostalgia for London past. Of Piccadilly’s Brasserie Zedel Sherwood writes ‘Before the Second World War, London was a city of ballrooms. The belle époque splendour of Piccadilly’s former Regent Palace Hotel has all but been erased, but the basement ballroom remains intact.’
‘It’s sort of like taking somebody’s hand who has either been in London forever or never been in London before and showing them a good time,’ Sherwood explains. But unlike many other arguably more functional but undoubtedly less entertaining guides Sherwood’s book is an unapologetically opinionated riot that somehow manages to suggest that in eating somewhere like, say, Bentley’s Oyster Bar we might be doing more than just fuelling our stomachs; in some way we are playing a part in the evolving pageant that is London. And at the heart of what Sherwood is suggesting is not dinner or drinks or things to buy or see, it is experiences and potential encounters to make the heart beat faster and be remembered long after.
James Sherwood’s Discriminating Guide to London is published by Thames & Hudson.
The singularly elegant Mr Sherwood is pictured above at Scarfe’s Bar in his home neighbourhood of Bloomsbury.