I don’t know if these two gentlemen ever came to fight each other at any point in England’s history, perhaps for the honour of some maid or inspired by a territorial wrangle, but each Sunday their descendants duel in the streets around Edgware Road in unforgiving style. And it would be hard to find two more ill-matched combatants. Yes, they are both pubs, before we push the metaphor too far, and they both serve food. But they play by different rules.
Let’s start with the one playing the more familiar game, the one you’re more likely to know: the Wellington, on Crawford Street in Marylebone.
So, it’s one of those gastropubs with big aspirations – which is to say, tablecloths. There is a downstairs bar which feels like a pub at closing time, with the tables all against the wall and an good amount of wood floor on show, but balanced against that is a sense that the main action is upstairs in the simple dining room. It was fully booked and we only managed to get a table thanks to the sort of waywardly retroactive cancellation (“sorry we haven’t turned up, can we cancel please?”) that is sighingly better-than-nothing for the restaurant, but only just. We had read some mixed reviews but were determined to have a local night out and Crawford Street is the kind of London street that inspires hope, an expectation of quirky quality.
Getting that table was the best moment of the evening. I won’t labour it – the food wasn’t good and it was overpriced. I scanned the menu with my dietary restrictions in mind and concluded that tonight was one for an enforced treat: starter of warm goat’s cheese salad and a fancy 28-day steak. They happened to be the only dishes I could eat that night, and I do treat myself to a rare steak every 6 months or so. This one had fripperies on top and clocked in at an astonishing £39, which was not my idea of a relaxed neighbourhood dinner. To compensate, I ordered what should have been a safe but inexpensive southern French wine. It started shakily – wrong wine brought, right wine disappointing; “salad” was constructed around a large unadvertised piece of baguette. So far, it was a draw – I could have made better choices. But the steak was unforgivable. Tough, stringy, gristly. Neither of us could eat it, and Cabe will eat anything shaped like steak. His own food was bland – a soup based on Stilton lacked the expected tang, for example. We tried to cheer ourselves up with the assertion that it’s good to very occasionally eat somewhere disappointing, since it throws everything else into happy relief. But that can get to be a pricey route to zen-like perspective, and a more careful reading of London Eating, my usual ‘go to’ restaurant site, might have done the job. They gave it an average score of 3 out of 10, which is low even by grumpy diners’ standards, and which was depressed by catastrophically low recent scores. One reviewer, a past fan, explained that the Head Chef, who was the talent behind the initial success, left in late 2009 to go to the Admiral Codrington in South Kensington. Aha.
Now, for the underdog: the Kendal, on Connaught Street. The other side of Edgware Road, Connaught Village is a chi-chi enclave full of cupcakes, Vera Wang dresses and Tony Blair’s armed bodyguards. It also has some of the old stock left – like lovely little Trenta, a basic Italian with 4.5 tables and more good days than bad days. And the Duke of Kendal pub, a lively boozer in the unreconstructed style. We went along having heard rumours of a singalong, and sometimes it is just so much effort to get the karaoke gadget fired up at home. We thought we’d grab a bite whilst there – no expectations, just £9.95 for Sunday roast dinner in the back room.
Before I comment, let me digress quickly. I did a project in the sugar industry in 2002 and learned of the existence of ‘food service’, businesses that provide restaurants with ready-made dishes for onsite cooking (along with less lucrative sugar sachets and make-believe ketchup). Since then, I’ve been sadly too aware of the fact that most of the places we go to – including apparently high-end restaurants – rely heavily on the likes of Brake Bros and 3663 for much of their ‘home cooked’ food. That’s why you see uncanny similarities in menus everywhere, of lamb shanks or lemon tarts – it’s the catering equivalent of the cerulean blue sweater dissected in The Devil Wears Prada, all selected by some hidden figure deciding that that’s what will be in the catalogue this season. Anyway. It’s just that the Kendal’s roast was apparently cooked from scratch on the premises. I can’t vouch for other things on the menu, which might be made of plastic for all I know, but this was great food. Perfectly moist chicken, crunchy/soft roasted potatoes, good gravy. Looking harder at the bare back room, the same surprising layer of sophistication started to show through. Artfully arranged empty picture frames nested inside each other; dark flock wallpaper casually ripped away to expose the brick.
But you all want to know about the singalong, don’t you? Well, it’s not karaoke. There is a pianist called June who is in her 90s and hammers out old tunes. June cheerfully bashes us through classics like Yes, We Have No Bananas and Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner, with a soloist leading the verses and the crowd piling in for the chorus. The pub is festival-packed with a mix of people who were born in the pub’s basement (or would have you think so) and johnny-come-latelies who have only been coming for a decade or so. Many of these younger folks are Swedish, reflecting the existence of a Little Stockholm enclave close by. Leader of the tribe is Magnus, a phlegmatic man in a flat cap, also one of the established soloists every Sunday evening. He talks to us about this being his adoptive family since coming to London, and belts out East End songs with perfect intonation. There is a Venezuelan who has become a regular, and he sings Besame Mucho. An older man sings Wonderful Tonight and makes us all (well, me) a bit emotional. Before you ask, we didn’t get to sing – you’ve got to earn your stripes, so we made do with singing loudly the bits we knew and trying to learn the rest as fast as we could.
So, just to be clear, Kendal bt. Wellington. No further fixtures needed.