Manzi’s, London W1: ‘Liberace levels of camp and self
Old-school glamour will never stop being attractive
Whatever happens to dining out come the future, discerning restaurateurs will always open places such as the new Manzi’s in Soho, and at considerable expense, because old-school glamour will never stop being attractive. AI butlers, vegan fried chicken shops in BoxParks and pop-up 1990s-themed hip-hop taquerias are all very exciting, but not if you need somewhere to host a group for a special occasion.
I needed somewhere that would take a reservation and be busy enough to cope with our inevitable noise levels, yet at the same time sedate enough for everyone to be able to chat. I needed starters, mains and puddings, so dinner actually felt like a proper night out, rather than a rush job. Also, it had to be a bit fancy, but not so fancy that it ended up costing £200 a head and our conversation interrupted every seven minutes by a server reverently explaining the process by which they collect the birch sap for the dressing on the confit giant prague celeriac.
If all those requirements seem somewhat outdated, it’s because they probably are. And yet, when the Wolseley Group opens a vast, marble-clad, all-day seafood brasserie serving oysters and dover sole, as well as fish finger sandwiches and knickerbocker glories, many diners will make a note, because here is a venue for all reasons.
Manzi’s menu is sea-themed, and features lavish flourishes such as lobster thermidor and monkfish wellington, but if there’s someone in your party who can’t stomach fish, don’t worry, because there’s also cannon of lamb with aubergine caponata, rib-eye with cafe de paris butter and Moroccan vegetable tagine with saffron couscous and apricots. In other words, you don’t have to like palourde clams to eat here, but it helps.
When I say sea-themed, I don’t mean hessian fishing nets, paintings of lighthouses or those whimsical, shell-embossed signs they sell at The Range that read: “This house believes in sandy toes”. No, I mean marble mermaids, a huge, wall-mounted marlin, a mural of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea, crab-shaped cruets and a plethora of fishy fixtures and fittings adorning the door handles to the loos and the backs of chairs. In short, it’s all a bit bloody much – but I like it.
Manzi’s has about it a whiff of the cruise-ship dining room, which might sound like a slight, but isn’t. It’s more the posh dining room bit you’re permitted to eat in only once a week and for which they wheel out the captain in his cummerbund and the ladies put on a “smart frock”, rather than the free-for-all buffet with a chocolate fountain and Americans pushing mac’n’cheese into their ears. For those few brief hours while you’re floating through a Norwegian fjord and eating souffle, it’s as if you’re in an entirely separate microcosm.
At Manzi’s, though, you’re in fact sailing just behind Dean Street and Frith Street, so, the moment you jump ship, its elegant, twinkly spell is broken, because you suddenly find yourself slap-bang in the middle of Soho’s usual bunfight. Even so, for the few hours I was asail in Manzi’s, I rather enjoyed its Liberace levels of camp and its self-aware daftness. More than that, though, I liked the food. The cioppino fish stew was hearty, a thick, rich, fragrant base teeming with cod, moules, squid and langoustine served with grilled sourdough and a big blob of pleasingly vicious saffron aïoli. A starter of fried violet artichokes were soft yet crisp and buttery, and came with a good parsley and lemon gremolata. A bowl of steamed whelks were dressed in Sarson’s malt vinegar, specifically namechecked on the menu so no one would think they were getting that bleak “non-brewed condiment” that so many chip shops hurl about these days.
Certainly, some will balk at the idea of paying £16 for a fish finger sandwich, but, having been numbed by London’s prices of late, I actually found myself gasping at just how reasonable £24 seemed for breadcrumbed haddock and chips. And a half-pint of prawns for only £14 – was I back in 2015?
The ridiculous and infantilising knickerbocker glory comes in a tall glass stuffed to the brim with strawberry ripple ice-cream, meringue, honeycomb, chocolate, whipped cream and raspberry sauce. This isn’t the best food in London by any stretch, but then no one ever goes to the Delauney, Brasserie Zédel or Fischer’s for the best food in town, either. They go because these places are always open, easy to understand, bookable and tend to have a cast of what seems like thousands on the floor, all cheerily whisking you through a perfectly decent dining experience. Manzi’s is no exception: it’s just newer, with cleaner glossy marble, crabby pepper pots and a mermaid on every bar corner. If you’ve heard that this type of eating out is over, well, you’re clearly hard of herring.
Manzi’s 1-8 Bateman’s Buildings, London W1, 020-3540 4546. Open all week, 11.30am-11pm (10pm Sun). From about £50 a head à la carte, prix-fixe menus £28 for two courses, £32.50 for three, all plus drinks and service
Grace Dent’s new book, Comfort Eating: What We Eat When No One Is Looking, is published in October by Guardian Faber at £20. To pre-order a copy for £16, go to guardianbookshop.comManzi’s