I’ve been going to some of the ‘fanciest’ places in London from an obscenely early age. Annabel’s, Nobu, The Ivy, you name it. These dressy outings with my dad always made me feel so grown up. Not in the current ‘I’ve got a Help-to-Buy ISA and I’ve finally swapped baby wipes for bleach when cleaning’ kind of way, but grown up in the old-fashioned sense. I learnt to cross my legs and be attentive and polite (at the cost of being nudged under the table for saying the wrong thing) until charisma was no longer a performance, but a reality that gradually became second nature.
As all things tend to do in life, it got boring. I traded in my heels for Nikes, began to drink lager, moved from Chiswick to Stockwell, and wore and said whatever I bloody well felt like. Bye bye Annabel’s, bye bye Nobu, bye bye dining with pomposity. But, every year, when it’s either my or one of my parents’ birthdays, I dust off my jewels and we go to Harry’s Bar on South Audley Street – a private members’ club that’s so hush-hush the folks who are allowed inside clutch its existence to themselves like a family heirloom. Google it, and you’ll find useless tidbits that barely touch the surface of what lies inside.
It’s worth noting here that, alas, this is not a scathing piece where I tug the restaurant through the shredder. If you’re hankering for homicide, avert your eyes.
Ringing the doorbell at Harry’s Bar on my 27th birthday, I feel a familiar blend of excitement and dread. Excited for the reliable heaven I’m about to consume, and dreading the company of my parents who, long divorced and now best pals, consistently, inadvertently, and brutally press mine and each other's every button.
The manager at Harry’s Bar, Luciano, greets me with a joyous peppering of Italian, ushering me into the gilded warmth of Harry’s. Luciano is one of those rarities in the restaurant world who is perpetually busy yet magically finds the time to make you feel like his favourite. As I sit at the bar, he gestures at one of the exclusively Italian and unfailingly kind staff to pour me a glass of champagne. I realise, with a sigh of relief, that I’m the first to arrive, and proceed to scan the room.
Dotted around the walls are framed caricatures depicting slapstick scenes, the characters reminiscent of the soppy-stern ‘fools in old-style hats and coats’ from Phillip Larkin’s seminal ‘This Be The Verse’. It dawns on me that Harry’s Bar is like a portal to the old-fashioned era mentioned in Larkin’s poem. Not only the décor, but the rigid rules and regulations of the place speak to the kind of pomposity that I had sidelined years ago. So why, then, am I such a devout follower? Surely loving Harry’s Bar is to defy the era of progression and inclusivity we’re currently in?
My millennial guilt disappears as I am handed a dirty vodka martini by the bartender Daniele, who had remembered that I like them. I pick up and place a parmesan shaving on my tongue, delighting in the tangy, nutty taste that envelops my mouth.
“Ahhh, Mama and Papa!” exclaims Luciano, as my parents bound through the door – eager as ever to outdo one another in their annual ‘who knows Ashiana better’ competition. After a few glasses of champagne and many a button pressed, we head to the dining room. Up until the evening I spent at Harry’s staring wide-eyed at Beyonce and Jay-Z, the dining room had been tainted by the memory of a disastrous meal in 2014. I had invited my reggae singing ex to meet my parents – and my old man had sat, quiet as a killer, eyeing up his festival wristbands, loosened tie, and drunken slurring with utter disdain. I was nudged under the table a few times that night.
There’s no point looking at the menu. Not because we already know what we want, but because Luciano and his family of Sardinian staff know better. Knowing my particular weakness for truffles, they send out a pasta dish. Strands of tagliolini are twizzled onto the plate, sitting in a pool of glistening butter. Shavings of tartufo bianco (white truffle) float down like falling petals from the waiter’s grater, shrouding the thin strands in a blanket of richness. I can’t imagine many ingredients were involved in the making of this buttery wonder, but its glory lies in simplicity, and a truckload of truffle.
I scoff as my dad orders tuna sashimi, dismissing the dish as inauthentic. And then I try some. The succulent umami taste of the buttery tuna is cut through by the sharp sweetness of miso and the satisfying crunch of sesame seeds. He grins, pleased that he’d proven me wrong with his choice.
I turn to my mum’s beef carpaccio, and begin to pile on its accompaniments in an attempt to create the perfect bite. The coming together of parmesan tang, soft raw beef, peppery, crispy leaves of rocket and creamy mustard speaks less to cheffy skill and more to Luciano’s uncompromising efforts to source the best of every ingredient for Harry’s.
A touch of theatre ensues as we watch one of the waiters roll out a little table, upon which an entire sea bass is caked in rock salt. Woozily, we gaze on as he hammers at the salt, and then masterfully lifts the steaming fish off its bones and onto our plates. The hot, delicate sea bass is a kiss of Mediterranean sun, with all the punch of Sicilian lemon and a subtle taste of saltiness infused in its creamy white flesh.
The indulgence remains steadfast as a cut of Galician Rubia Gallega arrives, and I receive the familiar “say thank you” nudge from under the table. I thank the waiter (but not because I’ve been told to – I’m a proper grown up now, after all). The piece of beef is everything I love in a steak dish. Bordering on blue in the middle and increasingly cooked on the outside, it is coated in a layer of crispy, flavourful fat. The fate of the verdant asparagus on the side is sadly to be nothing higher than an accoutrement.
Drunk on champagne, love, and gastronomical nirvana, I’m coming to accept the three remaining years of my twenties. I consider my pre-meal guilt with my champagne-clouded mind and settle on some justification for my unwavering love for Harry’s. Yes, it’s one of the very few places left that won’t let you come in wearing a pair of jeans; there is an insistence on etiquette and a bit of old-world style. But for all its undeniable exclusivity, it is inviting and warm. Unlike so many of the formal, ‘fancy’ places in London, it has never been truly pompous. Every element of the experience champions simplicity, uncompromising quality, and familial interactions. The staff beam with conviviality as they anticipate your every need, and never make you feel like you’re just anyone. To them, you’re always someone. And to me, Harry’s Bar is still something.