What’s hot at the Playboy Club in London? The food, of course.
Hugh Hefner’s gambling establishment closed in the 1980s, when Bunnies already appeared passe. The new incarnation, which opened in May, seeks to evoke the glamour of the original, which drew celebrities when it was founded in 1966.
There’s a lot of interest in the club, even with its cost: 1,000 pounds ($1,600) to join, plus 1,200 pounds a year.
The food side is headed by Judy Joo, a Columbia graduate who worked for Morgan Stanley in New York and San Francisco before training to become a chef at the French Culinary Institute in New York. She later worked for Gordon Ramsay at his flagship restaurant before cooking on “Iron Chef” in the U.K. She’s now a judge on that television program in the U.S.
The club is on two floors. At ground level is Salvatore’s, a bar hosted by Salvatore Calabrese, one of the big names in European cocktails. He was previously at Salvatore at Fifty St. James and you’re in good hands if he is taking care of you.
Next door is the Cottontail Lounge, “where the Bunnies come out to play,” according to the website. This is a plush dark room, where DJs spin and there’s a tiny stage on which Bunnies are occasionally moved to dance. The design aims to recall memories of the original club in the 1960s and ‘70s.
(My memories are different: I was one of the minority of men on the first women’s studies course -- Sociology of Sex and Gender -- at the London School of Economics in the mid-1970s. If I’d gone near the club it would have been to protest, a thought that occurred to me when I sheepishly passed demonstrators on my way to the opening party in May.)
Upstairs is where the gaming happens, with Bunnies raking in the cash from punters at a row of tables. (There’s a hierarchy in the Bunny world: The regulars wear red, while the croupier/hostess Bunnies are in black.) Outside is a terrace and there’s a barber shop next door to the restaurant.
Joo’s menu at the club is mainly American, with Caesar salad, oysters, lobster roll, steaks and a macaroni & cheese with truffle and ceps. There are more intriguing options, such as a side of duck disco fries (French fries with confit duck meat, jus and crackling, artisan cheese curd) and a couple of starters that mark Joo’s Korean heritage.
Best are tacos are filled with bulgogi and kimchi, while the noodle dish is Jap Chae, with soy, garlic and sesame dressing. A fun dessert is Snickers: peanut parfait, salted butter caramel, chocolate mousse, praline. New York Style Cheesecake comes with English rhubarb. Joo started her cooking career as a pastry chef, and it shows.
Most starters are close to 10 pounds and the main courses more than 25 pounds. On the other hand, you probably won’t eat here if money is an issue and some diners probably will reckon it’s worth it as you can watch the Bunnies. Most of the waiters are men. If you lose on the tables, a burger is just 12 pounds. The wine list offers exceptional value.
London chefs have had limited success with U.S. cuisine. Joo is an exception: The ingredients and cooking are good, the dishes are imaginative and the menu is familiar enough to be comforting yet sufficiently quirky to be intriguing.
Just as people read Playboy for the interviews, I’d visit the club for the food. In other words, you don’t need pointy ears to appreciate this restaurant. Live long and prosper.
Playboy Club, 14 Old Park Lane, Mayfair, W1K 1ND. Information: Tel. +4420-7491-8586; http://www.playboyclublondon.com/home/.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? 2,200 pounds.
Sound level? At 75 decibels, you can hear the chips fall.
Inside tip? Don’t bother the bunnies.
Special feature? Women dressed as rabbits.
Will I be back? In my dreams.
Date place? There are too many distractions.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)