Night after night, decade after decade, Knightsbridge and South Kensington’s well-heeled denizens pack out this dining institution, but why, when the food and decor are dated, the tables cramped, the room seriously noisy, and the prices little short of stratospheric?
Scalini is an attractive blue building set amongst dinky townhouses, select bars and one-off boutiques on the kind of street that whispers rather than shouts serious money. Two connecting dining rooms sport the fussy, peach-toned decor of an 80s housing estate show home. Regulars say nothing ever changes at Scalini (that’s partly why they love it), so the look may actually date from then! Tables are packed tightly and all are taken, even on weeknights. The diners are an international-looking bunch but all ooze cash. They all end up shouting a fair bit, too, thanks to truly appalling acoustics.
Service is old-fashionedly chauvinistic, with questions about bookings and wine lists automatically directed to the man in the group, even if it’s a woman who makes the request. Can’t we expect restaurants to be gender-blind in the 21st-century? Other than that, service is fine, although a fair amount of waving is necessary to get the bill.
Everyone seems to be having a lovely time despite the shortcomings. There’s no denying the buzz. Famous faces are routinely spotted. Crisply efficient waiters somehow manage to squeeze fairly unobtrustively between those crammed tables.
Top quality mixed olives, not bad bread and watery, tasteless, chopped tomato to pile onto it are already in place as diners take their seats. Starters are divided into cold, hot and soup options, 26 in all. All the old favourites are there, like carpaccio of beef, ham with melon, baked avocado with crab, seafood salad and smoked salmon. Avocado Reale is sliced avocado with lobster, celery and cocktail sauce. The avocado is fine, the lobster a fairly generous portion of tasty, if slightly chewy, meat. The celery adds a welcome crunch and the cocktail sauce takes you straight back to the 70s. There’s nothing wrong with this dish if you like your food simple and retro, but why doesn’t the price of more than £16 cause at least one heart failure per service amongst the more corpulent patrons? Zuppa di Crostacei (shell fish soup) has a good depth of flavour and will set you back £10.
There are 11 pasta and three risotto options (the latter for two persons only), eight fish mains and a staggering 25 meat choices. Again, classics abound, like beef medallions in Madeira and mushroom sauce, chicken breast stuffed with garlic butter, half a roast duck in orange sauce, and grilled Dover sole. A skate wing with black butter, capers and garlic (£18) is acceptable. The fish is cooked well but the sauce is a bit insipid, neither the capers nor garlic really registering. King prawns in a spicy garlic and butter brandy sauce (£21) is better: the generous row of prawns arrive still in their shells, so there’s dismantling to be done, but the meat is sweet and the sauce unctuous – old-fashioned in the best sense. The selection of vegetables, served with both dishes, is a sad affair, featuring slightly overdone French beans, bog-standard broccoli and roast potatoes that lack crunch.
Of the pudding options (all £5.50), delivered verbally by the waiter, a selection of ice creams is pleasant but wouldn’t have an Italian weeping nostalgically. Cassata is a modest portion and the flavours in the different layers are tame.
If the food prices haven’t already made you giddy, the cost of wine may. The house wine on the extensive list starts at about £15, rising to nearly £700. A French Sancerre arrives correctly chilled and is very pleasant. Waters, soft drinks and all the other options you’d expect are available.
The Last Word
If this food were half the price and served at a high street trattoria, it wouldn’t be a bad deal for nostalgia lovers: even the noise level and sardine-style seating might be acceptable. But how a restaurant charging top dollar in one of the capital’s most exclusive enclaves gets away with it, year after year, may baffle the uninitiated. Maybe Scalini is like a close relative: you’ve known them for a very long time and have had some good nights with them, so you love them unconditionally and are blind to – or, at least, highly tolerant of – their shortcomings.