David Ellis reviews Andrew Edmunds: As good as the old days? No, this Soho favourite on finer form than ever

Untouched gem: the diminutive upstairs dining room  (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)
Untouched gem: the diminutive upstairs dining room (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)

By design, necessity and nomenclature, newspapers deal with the now — but lingering strikes, an enervated pound and Margaret Thatcher’s name coming up every other minute mean today’s Standard comes to you from 1985, and as such was written on napkins in the boozer, fag in hand (not really; I couldn’t find any Silk Cuts).

And so to Soho’s Andrew Edmunds. Actually, that’s not why, but let’s leave it for now. Edmunds sits over two floors — three, if you count the Academy club upstairs — next to a print shop likewise named for its founder, which is handy for both a spot of post-lunch art, or for storing, say, an idiot diner’s unwieldy Brompton. Most things are unwieldy here: Edmunds’ ground floor is a famously cramped thing; one flowing walkway to the back kitchen, tables washed up either side, white-clothed and candlelit. Such diminutive dimensions and their consequences — supper can involve plenty of brushed knees, avoiding eye contact would require a blindfold (steady on) — mean the place long ago picked up a reputation for being romantic. It is a restaurant of first dates, of anniversaries, of affairs. Dark green downstairs is only slightly bigger, no less dangerous. What is offered here — besides the food and drink and the chance of an unexpected pregnancy — is atmosphere. Fun tremors through the air as music might. You will hear secrets cheerfully spilled at volume, running-on laughter only ever tamed by a cough, idle attempts at chatting someone up.

Hours here somehow remind me of the rare occasions my family accidentally sat in non-smoking sections of restaurants. We would wistfully watch the other side of the glass, gazing at everyone tapping off their ash and having a far better time of it than the dour lot around us. At Andrew Edmunds, the whole place is the smoking section. They’ve just long left the smoke behind.

The wine list — French-leaning, fairly marked-up and finely chosen — is known for its beautiful, bargain bottles. We get lucky; so does everyone else. Getting lucky with the wine is a feature here. So is drinking lots of it.

What is offered here — besides the food and drink and the chance of an unexpected pregnancy — is atmosphere

Curiously — or perhaps not — though the place has more-or-less been fully booked for 37 years and counting, food often goes unmentioned. But given the last couple of trips, and particularly at last week’s meal, it shouldn’t be. Last week, in fact, was revelatory: cold roast pigeon had its skin made both sweet and sour with pickled ginger; the beetroot ketchup, all earth, gave balance. Mackerel came with a hoof of horseradish stirred up with crème fraîche; the chef is the bold sort. A Dover sole might not have been on the same plane as one at Bentley’s earlier in the week, but it was less than half the price and did, gloriously, taste as though it had swum through butter its entire life. Lamb neck arrived tousled with pepper and oil, slung in among fennel with garlic in its bones, thanks to a mighty aioli.

Finesse: the cooking in the restaurant is better than ever (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)
Finesse: the cooking in the restaurant is better than ever (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures)

Triumphant tiramisu profiteroles, the choux pastry bulging with coffee and cream, seemingly pushed my friend into rambling raptures — although, hands up, we were by then manfully making our way through the muscat. The service is the sort I wish was mandatorily taught in hospitality schools, or just on the first day at Pret. It is warm; they have a sense of humour; they are not over-familiar. There is a formula here somewhere.

Andrew Edmunds died last month, 79 and out. His family said it was unexpected. In the weeks since, I’ve heard from all sorts of people with their memories of the place. Some wonder why they haven’t been lately, and what it’s like these days. You will have your own stories, I think. The stars and warmth on this page are not a mawkish tribute to a man I never met, but instead rightfully mark a restaurant operating with not only skill and surprising finesse, but a certain easiness that comes from old hands worn into their groove.

It is a lesson to every pared-back pretender. Perhaps the team here have upped the game after the recent unsought attention, or perhaps this is their kind of eulogy. But it really was one of the great lunches. The next time someone asks me if the place is as good as it always used to be, I’ll have to shake my head softly. No, I’ll say. Much better.

46 Lexington Street, W1F 0LP. Meal for two, including drinks and service, about £140. Open Monday-Sunday, noon-11pm; andrewedmunds.com