The band strikes up on a small stage as diners tuck into French food and sip wine while admiring the large room. Marble pillars support the high, gilded ceiling with its Art Deco light fittings, as uniformed waiters hurry between the kitchen and tables.
Brasserie Zedel is among London's most glamorous restaurants, but many visitors walk past the discreet entrance unaware of the subterranean dining room. It's filled with regulars, not to mention actors from West End shows, who get a discount.
Look at pictures of Zedel and you would be forgiven for assuming it was in Paris. The Beaux Arts room opened in in 1915 as part of the Regent Palace Hotel, then the largest hotel in Europe.
It's not just the designs that make Zedel unusual. It's the prices. In a city with some of the world's most expensive restaurants, they are exceptionally low. The Prix Fixe menu is £9.75 ($12) for two courses, £12.75 for three. Go for the fancier Formule menu and it's £19.75, including a glass of wine and coffee.
Those are not special lunchtime offers. The menus are also served for dinner, and there is no cover charge for the band. Don't go expecting fancy ingredients unless you order a la carte, but even then the prices are favorable. Bœuf Bourguignon is £12.50, whole baked trout with almonds £14.75. The food is surprisingly good. Wine starts at £4 a glass, £21 a bottle. Pommery Brut Royale Champagne is £9.75 a glass.
So how do they do it?
Over a £12.75 meal of carottes rapées (grated carrot salad); steak haché sauce au poivre et frites (burger and chips with pepper sauce but no bun); and tartes aux fruits (fruit tart), restaurateur Jeremy King explained the business. King owns Zedel with his business partner, Chris Corbin. Their group includes the Wolseley, which is fashionable and has spawned imitators. Not so Zedel, whose prices annoy rivals, King says.
"We do it by judicious buying and careful controls," he says. "On a busy night, we may serve 900, though we are happy with 700 of an evening."
The restaurant opened in 2012 and started making money in 2014. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of £60,947, compared with a year-earlier loss of £58,401. Sales rose by 3.2 percent to £8.68 million, corporate accounts show.
Although the restaurant is close to Piccadilly Circus, there are probably more regulars than tourists. The entrance isn't easy to spot, and it's only when you walk through a ground-floor cafe and descend to the basement that you discover the dining room, along with the sister Bar Americain and Crazy Coqs, a cabaret venue.
"I wanted a place my kids can go," King says, "a place where somebody can afford to go out on a date, and for it to be really special and very cheap, but also a canteen for the affluent. And what is rather nice is we get a lot of very affluent people just popping in."
Zedel isn't alone in offering bargain dining in London. A new breed of younger restaurateurs is running with the idea of low prices. Take Padella, an Italian restaurant at Borough market serving food that is both alluring and affordable. Antipasti such as baked borlotti bean, pancetta, treviso and Chiarentana olive oil cost £3.50; tagliatelle with nduja, mascarpone and parsley is £5.50; pear & almond tart is £4.
Or how about Hoppers, a Sri Lankan cafe that is currently London's hottest restaurant? Mutton-roll snacks are £4 and fish curry is £7. The catch? Both are no reservations and you may wait hours for a table.
The business model is based on low cost and high volume, where a chair never sits empty and there are no tablecloths or linen napkins. You may have to share a table or sit at a counter.
I reviewed Zedel when it opened and wouldn't normally write about a restaurant four years on. It was only when I popped in for a drink on a recent rainy afternoon that I recalled how special it is.
Article by Richard Vines, chief food critic at Bloomberg