Chiltern Firehouse is filled with so many celebrities, it’s almost impossible to get a table.
It’s like when I tried for a midweek dinner reservation at the Ivy in July 2007 and was offered a booking for January 2008. I took it. If somewhere is that popular, I want in.
Times change. I called the Ivy last Tuesday and got a table for the same night. Chiltern Firehouse probably faces a similarly accessible future. That doesn’t help right now if you want to go and are not famous enough to snag a reservation.
There is a way in. The restaurant recently started serving breakfast. It’s not being promoted anywhere and there is no great crush. It’s not particularly expensive and on a sunny day, the windows are all open and the sunshine streams in.
The first thing to notice about the Chiltern Firehouse is that it is unusual and beautiful. The dining room of the former fire station isn’t glitzy at all. The glamour is understated, blending industrial touches with comfortable banquettes, a tiled floor and lots of cream-painted wood.
The lighting is subtle and flattering. I caught sight of myself in a mirror and even I looked like I belonged there.
Second, the service is good. The owner, U.S. hotelier Andre Balazs, has brought in talented staff members from restaurants across London. The fact many are also gorgeous helps. The uniforms are beautiful and the service style is American: friendly not stiff.
Spiced Crab Omelette
And so to the food.
The menu is accessible, with steaks and salads and simple fish and vegetable dishes. At breakfast, you might start with croissant, blueberry compote at 6 pounds ($10) then move on to smoked salmon, poached eggs and herbed potato cakes (12 pounds).
If you’re feeling adventurous, the spiced crab omelette with turmeric, potatoes and chervil (17 pounds) is a specialty. It looks pretty, served in a skillet, but it’s too sweet. I go for the Iberico pork sausage and crispy smoked bacon with toast.
The juices are fresh. The coffee is weak. The cappuccino is for babies or people who don’t like coffee. If they wanted to decaffeinate it, they’d need sniffer dogs to find the caffeine.
My general feeling is that if there’s time for breakfast, there’s time for an extra hour in bed. But if you are one of those power people who like to set up early-morning meetings, Chiltern Firehouse may be the place for you.
Other options include steamed egg whites chawanmushi with mushrooms and greens -- a Japanese custard costing 12 pounds; and French toast, smoked bacon, spiced maple syrup (9 pounds).
The Wolseley is my favorite place in London for breakfast. Chiltern Firehouse currently comes second.
If you do make it in for lunch or dinner, it’s useful to know in advance that the cooking is not ambitious. The website gives no information and word-of-mouth about the place is hard to come by unless you hang out with celebrities. It’s comfort food and some diners may be disappointed not to be wowed.
That’s understandable. Lisbon-born Nuno Mendes is one of the U.K.’s most creative talents. At his previous restaurant, Viajante, his kitchen was a laboratory, his menu sizzled, his dishes were like fireworks. You might consider Firehouse a damp squib if Cesar salad and sirloin steak are not your thing.
But I am not disappointed. I like his cooking and if he is giving you a familiar dish, he will still spice up your life.
The snacks of corn bread and especially the crab-stuffed donuts are delicious. The steak tartare comes with a twist in the shape of a chipotle sauce; the Cesar salad is topped with crispy chicken skin rather than a chunk of breast meat.
If you can put to one side the celebrity madness surrounding Chiltern Firehouse, you have a glamorous restaurant with good service and decent food and a wine list that isn’t too greedy. If you show up toward the end of lunch time, you might even be able to get a table without booking.
Failing that, I might see you at breakfast. Or I hope you might catch me in Hello!
Chiltern Firehouse, 1 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London, W1U 7PA. Information +44-20-7073-7676. The (minimalist) website is http://www.chilternfirehouse.com/.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)