Quaglino’s was founded in 1929 by Giovanni Quaglino: a restaurateur hailing from the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. Quaglino was an exceptionally talented waiter – by 17 he was maître d’hôtel at the grand Martinez Hotel in Cannes – but he seemed in no hurry to start his own business. Instead he came to England and The Savoy, where he worked with another maître d’hôtel, named Sovrani. When Sovrani left to open his own restaurant in Jermyn Street, Giovanni, or John as he was mostly known went with him.
Sovrani repaid this loyalty by taking too keen an interest in his employee’s pretty wife. In turn, Quaglino returned the favour by moving on and taking charge of the restaurant at the St James’s Palace Hotel (later the Hotel Meurice), just around the corner in Bury Street, and competing for Sovrani’s customers.
He won this grudge match with a combination of exceptional food and service, and by providing a fashionably late supper followed by music and dancing, but most especially Quaglino’s personality drew people to the restaurant. Contemporaries describe him as a man of genuine grace and kindness, rather than a mere charmer. In those days it was the maître d’hôtel rather than the chef who was the star of the restaurant. “To have a famous maître d’hôtel greet you respectfully by your surname, to greet him in turn familiarly is a strong tonic for your ego”, observed Vogue in 1936.
Quaglino’s love of good food and company created a special atmosphere. Every aspect of his restaurant was meticulous, but there was nothing stuffy about the place. He struck exactly the tone glamorous society favoured.
The Mountbattens patronised Quaglino’s, Evelyn Waugh came for lunch, and the smart set crowded into the bar hoping for a table. When the Prince of Wales (later, briefly, Edward VIII) took a liking to the place, the fame of John Quaglino’s restaurant was assured. By 1935 he had been able to buy the whole hotel.
Ernst Quaglino, John’s brother, came to run the restaurant with him, and they also took over the Normandy Hotel in Knightsbridge. In 1958 the ballroom, which is the site of the new Quaglino’s was added and became the smart place to hold a do. The brothers stopped running Quaglino’s after The Second World War, but it stayed in favour and fashion right through to the 1960’s, operated in impeccable style by staff they had trained.
Throughout the years Royalty continued to play here – in fact, a table was permanently reserved for Princess Margaret, and it was the first public restaurant ever visited by a reigning monarch, when the Queen and Prince Philip came for dinner in 1956.
It was also a haven for Hollywood legends and the political elite, for this is where Judy Garland celebrated her final marriage in 1969, and where the Profumos put on a very public display of affection after being hit with the Christine Keeler scandal in 1961. It was also where Barbara Cartland found a pearl in her oyster, and where she forged a friendship with Quaglino, which led to her writing the foreword to his frankly brilliant 1935 book, The Complete Hostess.
Then in 1993, after a number of years in retirement Quaglino’s was then once again opened to critical acclaim during the height of a recession on Valentine’s Day 1993 by Conran Restaurants.
The restaurant created a buzz so momentous that tables were traded on the exchange, Princess Diana snuck in through the kitchens, stolen ashtrays became trophies, and even the Quag’s cigarette girls, in their couture uniforms, were minor celebrities.
The restaurant relaunched again, with a brand new look and glittering stage in 2014, courtesy of Russell Sage Studios, quickly becoming a celebrity favourite once more. In the grand tradition of Quaglino’s, Prince Harry was one of the first through the doors, securing its position as one of St James’s most spectacular dining destinations.
It is a place where many legends have descended and many legends have been made and long may they continue to be made…Make sure you re-create your new Quaglino’s legend!