Looking up Swallow Street from a deserted Piccadilly, the current incarnation of Bentley’s presents as a warm, glowing pool of light amid the darkness. As we get closer, we can hear a babble of voices. I want mine to be a part of that babble, a murmur of basso profundo to bottom out the high notes. Happily, that’s about to happen. I have bagged a table and I did so courtesy of a cunning ruse. I texted the chef and asked for one.
Stop scowling. Much has been said recently about the arrival of outside dining; about the thrill of the regathered herd, of food cooked by others and the joyous subcontracting of washing-up. Less has been said about the savage battle for bookings. People have been grabbing for slots like addicts desperate for a fix – which, in a way, I suppose they are. The tables are few. The diners are many. The struggle is real. Drastic measures are called for. In any case what scant anonymity I have is useless here, not because I do this job, but because I am a regular. I even have a favoured stool at the marble-topped oyster bar and I’m not ashamed of the fact: it’s the one three in from the door to the kitchen.
As we emerge from the worst year for the restaurant business in living memory, I wanted to write about a classic restaurant – the kind of place I daydreamed about in the depths of lockdown; the one that always makes me think everything will be OK. That had to be Bentley’s. It first opened in 1916, standing proud on an L-shaped lane that runs between Piccadilly and Regent Street and which, some years ago, was pedestrianised, making it ideally suited to outside dining and not getting run over. I last reviewed it in 2005 when the chef Richard Corrigan had just taken over and restored it to its classy seafood glory. The night I visited he was behind the bar, furiously shucking oysters, apparently oblivious to the blood dripping down his meaty forearm from where he had stabbed himself multiple times. He was suffering for our dinner.
I have returned often to that downstairs bar and sat, elbow to elbow, slurping oysters off the half-shell, while squinting at the eccentric handwriting on the specials chalkboard listing dishes that never feel forced. Corrigan long ago withdrew to the kitchen leaving the oyster shucking to Helio Garzon, a sardonic soul with half a century’s experience prising recalcitrant bivalves open. I have spent ages watching him, while sipping something cold and crisp. Dinner and a show, and so on. There is a softer-edged dining room upstairs, but I’ve never felt the need to visit. I want the bustle here. Mostly I want the great seafood, treated with respect. I love the treacly soda bread, and the green-flecked seaweed butter to go with it. The lemon is always muslin-wrapped. The classics are always executed properly. The innovations are always considered. The fizz is cold. Just hold your nose when the bill comes. Great seafood costs. Perhaps get yourself a government contract you are completely unqualified to deliver. That should pay for it.
Throughout the pandemic, I spoke often to Corrigan. I heard the agony in his voice as he described negotiating with landlords or dismissed the idea of taking government loans as a fool’s errand. Now, after the stop-start of the past year, they are back. We’re not allowed inside, of course. Garzon may well be in there, working his blade into hinge after hinge without flinching. We must be out here seated amid the longer director’s cut of their patio-dining operation. It has, I’m told, been an uneven re-entry. We often describe great restaurants as finely oiled machines. But the cogs in that machine are human beings and sometimes they take a little while to slip into gear with each other.
Tonight, however, this version of Bentley’s, beneath umbrellas and heaters, is running on well-oiled tracks. Orders are taken. Trays appear, held high. Here and there a crab limb dangles casually over the edge of a silver bowl, like Tallulah Bankhead’s leg draped off a chaise longue. We choose both British classics and dishes with the flavours of elsewhere. From the classic side of the equation, we get the English shellfish cocktail. It’s essentially a compact fruits de mer, in which all the hard work has already been done.
Atop shredded lettuce, there are generous amounts of both white and brown crabmeat side by side, spun through with nutty brown shrimps. There are finger-thick Atlantic prawns and a lobster claw and, resting across the top, eyeing you down, a butch, sturdy langoustine, its hinged claws cupping the bowl, as if shielding the contents from pilferers. Hands off. Our classic main is the Bentley’s fish pie. A piped and golden mashed potato top gives way to smoked haddock, salmon and prawns, all bound in a mustard-boosted sauce. It is a fish pie made by someone who understands the engineering of the dish. It is the essence of a PG Wodehouse novel, enclosed within a ceramic dish. It is not my first Bentley’s fish pie. It won’t be my last.
From the other side of the coin comes what they call their “Vietnamese” dressed raw oysters, with a rosé-pink broth punchy with sweet citrus and salty fish sauce, and topped with coriander leaves and tiny battered rings of deep-fried shallot. There is a sprightly ceviche of thinly sliced scallop and gurnard with lime and chilli, and then a Goan-inflected curry of prawns and monkfish with vigorous vinegary notes. It is the same language of seafood, only with a modulated accent. Here, the ingredients are king. To finish there is a choux bun, with a crunchy caramel glaze, back-filled with a hazelnut cream. There is also a set lemon cream so pointedly citrus-sharp it makes you shiver, but in a good way, topped with splodges of gooseberry purée and meringues like nipple tassels. Or maybe they’re just like my nipple tassels. A great restaurant experience is all about the self, isn’t it?
Late in the evening, Corrigan appears from the kitchen. He will not pretend. It’s been a bruising year, and he carries those marks upon his back. But Bentley’s is still standing as it has stood for over a century. The wine is still being poured. The food is still coming out of the kitchen. The pandemic didn’t deal the knockout blow. We give thanks for all of that and drain another glass.