During all the lockdowns, there’s one thing that Nicholas Morgan missed the most, a Martini made by Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes Bar in London. Here’s why…
It’s hard to think that January 2022 in London is really that much different from January 2021. Well, that’s not quite true. Of course it’s different. We still have Covid 19, but now we have vaccines. Crucially, we’re not in lockdown. People are still working from home, wearing masks on public transport, in shops and public places, but there are no restrictions on socialising and the hospitality industry is definitely open for business.
Like a ghost town
Yet the city looks, sounds and feels, and even smells, like we are under lock and key, even if this time it’s a voluntary, self-imposed incarceration. Want to get a barometer reading of the pressure of London’s nightlife? Try booking a table at J Sheekey, one of the capital’s best fish restaurants. Tucked away behind Leicester Square it is at the very centre of the capital, in the very heart of theatreland. In better times you might have had to wait three to four weeks before you could secure a booth or table, even longer for a Thursday, Friday or Saturday. At the time of writing there are tables available in profusion, lunchtimes and evenings, for the foreseeable future. Both doughty stalwarts and starstruck tourists are voting with their feet. The Zoom drinks parties have started again. Even the garden at Number Ten Downing Street has fallen eerily silent.
A few days before bars and restaurants were first closed in March 2020, I paid a visit to Dukes Bar off St James to enjoy Martinis with a few friends. Dukes is a famous London hotel, founded in 1908, and particularly beloved by visitors from the United States. It lives and breathes ‘old school’. The door is hidden away (rather like the hotel) in a corner of the lobby, an unassuming entrance to this half-lit Aladdin’s cave of cocktails. But it is a well-trodden path, a place of pilgrimage for martini lovers in search of a special style of serve pioneered in the 1980s by Salvatore Calabrese, and now championed by Alessandro Palazzi. Both the bar, and its extensive range of martinis and classic cocktails, have a dedicated cadre of followers and devotees. As Tales of the Cocktails acknowledged in 2021, it’s a timeless classic. It’s the sort of place that gets under your skin.
London, like many great global cities, has no shortage of cocktail bars. Other celebrated hotels in the capital have classy watering holes, many of which are mentioned in the diaries and society gossip columns of the 1920s and 30s. The Savoy, the Ritz, the Connaught, Brown’s and Claridge’s (‘photography is not permitted and formal attire is required’) are all still going strong, still at the very cutting edge of the cocktail world, destination bars for Londoners and visitors alike. Some restaurants too have almost secret bars serving wonderful drinks, like the oldest eatery in London, Rules, or the now lamented Mark’s Bar at Hix Soho. There are the hipster cocktail bars up in Shoreditch, Hoxton and Clerkenwell staffed by self-conscious mixologists wearing leather aprons, designer jeans and no socks. There are the bars featured in Time Out’s league table of ‘London’s Prettiest Bars’, feasts for the eyes bursting with colour, bright lights (important for Instagram) and crazy furniture along with highly experimental cocktails, and often, like the hipster bars, with obtrusively loud music. There are also whisky bars, when you’re in the mood. Oh, and still of course some wonderful historic pubs, many of which serve good beers. Something for everyone and every mood.
Dukes is none of those, and almost certainly is content not to be listed among the ‘prettiest bars’. On the contrary, its vibe is understated, quietly smart though relaxed, classic, grounded – or, as my friends say, ‘grown-up’. The stars here are the staff and the drinks, not the décor. Alessandro Palazzi and his colleagues have that knack of making everyone feel equally welcome. Not an easy thing to do when you have such a disparate clientele. Aristocrats young and old appear from nearby clubland, wealthy (often elderly and always charming) American guests who know how to drink, the Buckingham Palace crowd, country mice in town for the weekend, conspiratorial cabals, romantic couples of all ages, Tinder hook-ups, ‘uncles’ and ‘nieces’, the Italians, the drinks people. Like all the greatest bars Dukes is marvellously egalitarian, the waiting staff making all their guests feel at home, even if you must sometimes wait a while before you get seated.
And just as a reminder, that is the essence of hospitality. Journalists have talked and written about ‘the hospitality industry’ over the past two years as bars and restaurants have lurched from one crisis to another, but at its heart hospitality isn’t an ‘industry’. It’s all about the personal touch, ‘the reception and entertainment of guests or strangers with liberality and goodwill’, something at which Dukes excels.
Goodbye to all that
I recall we were the last to leave that March night two years ago, at around 9.00pm. The bar already felt like the Marie Celeste. It was an unusually gloomy departure, an overbearing cloud of pessimism dulling our usual good spirits. For the record the bar closed the following day even before the government Covid regulations came into force, as customers had dwindled to virtually nought. I took a farewell photograph, which would become my Zoom backdrop of choice as drinking home-made cocktails with friends captured on a computer screen became the entertainment de jour. Walking out onto a deserted St James felt like turning my back on a dearly loved second home, with a sad certainty that it would be a long time before I saw it again. Home, they say, is where the heart is. It felt as though I’d left a little piece of my heart behind.
Since then, it’s been two years of closed, open, open, closed for Dukes Bar, as it has been for the rest of the on-trade in London, as lockdowns have come and gone. With the same group of friends I’ve been replaying farewells and welcomes at Dukes as if caught in my own slightly alcoholic Groundhog Day. The resilient staff, as welcoming as ever, appeared to have been in place throughout the closedowns, frozen like exhibits at London’s famous Madame Tussauds waxworks, just waiting to be brought back to life by the sound of arriving guests. The warmth of their welcome is undiminished, their enthusiasm for making great drinks is as strong as ever. Sinking into the welcoming blue upholstered chairs the sense of being back where one belongs is overwhelming. It’s the comfort, rather than the contempt, of familiarity.
And then there’s the Martini.
The home Martini
Now I’ve become rather a dab hand at martini mixing at home over the past few years. The gin (Tanqueray mostly) and the glass both fresh from the freezer, a generous dash of Cocchi Americano, stirred over ice and served with an olive (Spanish Gordal olives, with a hint of lemon, are my choice). Strictly enforced house rule: one only. But nice as that may be it’s simply not the same as the free pour Dukes Martini which I would never dare to try and imitate at home. It just wouldn’t be right.
There is something deeply indulgent about having a drink made for you. It’s like being measured by a tailor for a new jacket or suit. Every detail attended to so as to ensure the perfect fit. Yes, you may have to wait a little while before the full pleasure is realised, but a little deferred gratification makes it even more worth it. Part of the pleasure is in the anticipation.
The famous Dukes Bar Martini
At Dukes my Martini is made at a wooden trolley by my table. The background music here is gently shaken ice and smoothly stirred drinks. For new guests there’s a running commentary as the drink is made. I have a choice from a wide selection of classic and contemporary gins (or vodkas), but it’s hard for me to see past the familiar citrussy juniper of Tanqueray (preferably at 47% ABV). The house vermouth, which under normal circumstances barely touches the side of the frozen glass before being dispatched contemptuously onto the long-suffering carpet, is from Sacred, made in Highgate. The viscous gin slowly, seductively, poured from a height, like an intoxicating waterfall, to the very brim of the glass. Not shaken, not stirred. I choose to stand firm against Palazzi’s liturgy and get (with considerable reluctance) a large, single, Sicilian Nocellara olive, otherwise it’s a twist from a delightfully aromatic Amalfi lemon. And then miraculously this ice-cold concoction appears before me from the steadiest of hands. It’s perfect theatre. It’s like watching Gielgud or Olivier play out one of my favourite scenes from Shakespeare. It never disappoints. And then following my first sip, there is always a moment (dare I say a Martini moment?) of silence, of reverence and reflection shared with my guests before we plunge back into conversation.
Absence, and abstinence, makes the heart grow fonder. As a result, there was only one place I was heading last week for after a holiday season disrupted by a lengthy Covid-enforced isolation. Most people may be staying at home in a virtual lockdown, but I was determined to re-engage with society. While the streets of St James were unusually quiet, there was an agreeable hum of discrete conversation in the bar. Perhaps not as busy as usual, but a pleasing mix of familiar faces all equally determined to ride out this particular storm in style, and a warm welcome from the irrepressible Palazzi and his white-coated crew. The sound of the trundling trolley heralded the main event, the perfect pour, the perfect performance. After weeks of solitary confinement this magical Martini moment marked an epiphany. With that visceral first sip from the glass, I was restored to the world. More to the point, I was home.