There are restaurants and bars that feel instantly like old friends, from your first visit. Places that enchant you from the minute you step inside, places like Oldroyd in Islington, the Natural Philosopher in Hackney. Places that feel small, lovely and familiar.
But Smith & Wollensky London, ticking zero of those small, so-familiar-we’re-almost-family boxes, still manages to hit us the same way.
It catches me off-guard. Smith & Wollensky isn’t that place. It’s the sort of place that happens when an American steakhouse wants to crack London, and has a lot of weight to throw behind that. It’s the sort of place where the steak ‘enhancements’ on the menu include a Norwegian King Crab leg – a steak topping that’s the cost of two actual steaks at Flat Iron. S&W is really, really big, it’s grandiose, and even on a second visit, which this is, feels like stepping onto a film set – John Wick, maybe – or into a palace. It’s where you come when you want not just American steak, but the full American steakhouse experience.
S&W’s serving both those things. And in spades. We sit in beautiful, curved leather booths, order by the light of Art Deco lamps. Expanses of dark wood, brass and marble cut into geometric patterns stretch out on each side. It’s so damn pretty – and so totally assured – it’s hard not to be swept up in it.
The parts of the dinner that aren’t meat are mildly underwhelming – not bad, just without any of the aplomb S&W throws at everything involving steak or seafood platters. Starters of a burrata and tomato salad and a small pot of garlic shrimp are diffidently creamy, and diffidently garlicked. The truffle mac and cheese isn’t as truffle-rich, as cheesy or as decadent as it sounds. All are decent, none are as full-blown powerful as the restaurant’s swagger makes you hope they’ll serve up.
But the steaks. The steaks are where they’re keeping all the swagger.
You can order Irish beef – and we do, dividing ourselves between American sirloin and Irish rib eye for contrast – but their speciality is USDA Prime steak, dry-aging it in a room downstairs where they leave the flavours for 28 days to richen even further. We’re both more into bare than Bearnaised, but if you like your steak smothered in peppercorn or blue cheese, and topped with a lobster tail, the menu caters for that. We see steaks with a Norwegian King Crab claw balanced on top being brought to a nearby table, enormous and Dali-ish.
These are American-sized portions, delivered in sweepingly grand American steakhouse style. Towering seafood platters are borne out to neighbouring tables. Dishes are wheeled out, placed on trolleys, silver lids lifted off the plates with aplomb. You might go years without using or thinking the word aplomb in everyday life, only to blow a decade’s quota in one dinner at Smith & Wollensky.
The steaks are rich, buttery soft and the USDA sirloin is intensely… steaky… from the dry-aging. It’s true that isn’t everybody’s dream steak. But if feeling as though you’re eating the compressed essence of steak, like there’s an entire steak’s worth of steak in each mouthful, is what you look for from a steakhouse? Here comes Smith & Wollensky London, ready to dazzle you.
Jethro, whose commitment to eating incredible steak is maybe greater even than mine, is starting to slow down. I’ve been slowing for a while. There’s not a chance any steak’s getting left behind, but there’s also not a chance we’re going to make it through to the Smith & Wollensky dessert menu, famous for its dark, heavy chocolate cake to share. We make it out into the night, a bit dazed by meat, and wine, and lamplit grandeur. And a bit enchanted.
Smith & Wollensky London, The Adelphi, 11, John Adam Street, WC2N 6HT. 0207 3216007. Website.