When I arrived at the salubriously appointed Punchbowl in Mayfair, various thoughts ran through my head. Many of these involved the pub’s former owner, Guy Ritchie, where it had acquired a reputation for catering to would-be ‘gangster’ types who dressed in Hackett and liked to talk tough but in fact sounded like extras from The Italian Job. (‘Who sir? Me sir? You sir!’) It was therefore with some interest that I turned up to meet Larry for lunch there, being assured that it was much changed since the Ritchie days. Now part of the Epicurean collection of British pubs and inns, we were assured that the emphasis was on top-notch food and wine.
It was therefore not without faint surprise that, when we were taken on a tour of the establishment, we were confronted by none other than the sporting gentlemen of the Lower Botherington Outdoor Activities Society (their actual title escapes me) in the private dining room upstairs. All were jocund and sublime, drunk with idolatry, and, I fear, drunk with wine as well. Larry and I cast glances at one another. Was this to be the new clientele – gangsters replaced by rugby veterans? One of their number, more loquacious than his brothers in arms, gestured around at the walls. ‘We referenced the décor to obtain a discount, you know.’ I nodded. Clearly this cove knew both his aesthetic and vinous onions.
When we made it into the first floor dining room, helped by a recuperative g & t (Hendrick’s, naturally, with Fentiman’s tonic), it was our chance to assess the walls. The feel of The Punchbowl is, to put it mildly, an eclectic one. There is a good old-fashioned 18th century pub atmosphere to much of the building, not least the downstairs bar and the staircases, but the dining room has some unusual experiments in white and gold that give the whole place something of the feel of a 1980s music video. We half expected Duran Duran to appear from behind one of the doors at any moment and serenade us. (Stranger things have happened when Larry and I have been out.)
However, the food is why The Punchbowl has been getting approving noises over London, and it’s all of a very good standard. You wouldn’t be mistaking it for a bargain establishment, but then after all we are talking Mayfair rents, and Mayfair prices as a result. The game terrine is properly seasonal – the friendly and knowledgeable maitre’d let us know that it was about to change according to which flesh and fowl were currently roaming the moors – and a shared Chateaubriand, while not enormous at 600g, is every bit as good as the meat to be had elsewhere in London. We ordered some triple-cooked chips, which, after a spot of mild confusion hither and thither, eventually arrived, and lo, it came to pass that they were more than satisfactory as well, just as a tangy dark chocolate and orange tart was a delicious end to the meal.
We had heard on the grapevine (sic.) that The Punchbowl was very strong for its list of Bordeaux wines, many of which are sensibly offered by the glass as well as the bottle; no doubt the good burghers of the LBOAS had been tucking into many a fine claret to transform them into the state that we encountered them. So that no such fate befell us, the maitre’d instead recommended a bottle of New Zealand cabernet sauvignon, which went down as well as the produce of that fine country normally does. In fact, such was our man’s enthusiasm for the cellar that he proposed a rich linctus-like sherry with the chocolate tart. An oddity on its own, once paired with the tart it reached the sublime.
Like many a regular, I’m sure, we left The Punchbowl stumbling and satisfied. If I had any advice to the proprietors in these straighter (if not, hopefully, straitened) post-Ritchie days, it would be to tone down some of the exercises in décor and instead concentrate on what the restaurant and pub are doing well, namely serving high-quality food to more than satisfied patrons. And that, frankly, is all we can ask for.
41 Farm Street, London W1 www.punchbowllondon.com 020 7493 6841.
The Punchbowl is part of the Epicurean collection, a group of like-minded countryside pubs that support a passion for the culture of the great British countryside. For more to explore, visit www.epicureantimes.com.