“TO MY MOST HONOUR’D FRIEND Mr. Francis Godolphin,” writes Thomas Hobbes on the first page of Leviathan, that canonical work of modern philosophy, which he dedicated to a man far better known today for his London estate, or rather what that estate became. The 17th-century figure Godolphin was a member of Parliament and patron of the English philosopher, and also the owner of a rather capacious home at 16-18 St. James Place, in a quiet corner of the city that has somehow remained quiet to this day.
Almost everything else is different, however, including Godolphin’s residence, which for more than a century has been known as the Stafford Hotel. Perhaps because of its convenience to Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and the like, it has long been popular with tourists, particularly Americans, who have been patronizing an establishment known as the American Bar there since the 1920s (although the Queen Mother also allegedly loved the place, which besides its convenience to the palace, also reliably stirred up her favorite martini-esque concoction, now known as the QM). That makes the American Bar among the oldest, if not the oldest, cocktail joint of its kind still operating in the city, and that’s not the only reason that lovers of libation history ought to patronize the Stafford. Lord Godolphin had a large wine cellar built onsite, and that too is among the oldest of its kind in London.
“Do you want to see it?” asked a waiter once my son and I had finished our dinner at the Game Bird, the Stafford’s signature restaurant. (More on that in a moment.) Of course, we replied, and soon the man led us down a steep narrow stairway that suddenly opened onto a vaulted room dominated by an elegant table set for 10, a private dining room that “both Princes Harry and William have visited,” according to the waiter.
Deeper into the cellar we crept, down a long corridor lined with wines expensive ($3,500) and not, wines of recent vintage and wines covered in dust, part of the Stafford’s collection of more than 8,000 bottles. Like much of underground London, Lord Godolphin’s wine cellar was pressed into service as an air raid shelter during World War II, and the subterranean lair still contains an extensive collection of memorabilia from the period—a WAR DECLARED placard from the Daily Telegraph, various front pages from newspapers of the day (“Chamberlain Jeered, Warns of Nazi Attack on England”; “Hitler’s Peace Terms Revealed”; “JAPAN QUITS”), army recruiting posters and more. What a special place we’d happened upon. It was as if we’d left, for just a moment, the opulence and glamour of go-go London, and touched that ancient city’s true and abstemious soul.
Which was fitting too, as we’d just enjoyed quite a soulful meal upstairs at the Game Bird, which is the sort of place frequented by actual movers and shakers, not the ones who only think they are. Most everyone else installed in the silver, overstuffed banquettes seemed to be on a first-name basis with the help, who gracefully rolled trolleys of food across the carpeted dining room. We hailed the Smoked & Cured one, and were rewarded with a few absolutely heavenly strips of Forman’s salmon.
There are two main dishes that it are apparently a sin not to order at the Game Bird. The first of these, which one critic called “utterly historic,” is the chicken Kiev. Having eaten the dish only infrequently in the past—and never once having been to Kiev—we were unable to assess its importance to the ages. What we can say is that it was the finest mélange of poultry, garlic and butter to ever be rolled in breadcrumbs, and the whole thing vanished within seconds, if that tells you anything.
The second unmissable dish is known as steak and ale steamed suet pudding—something we’d eaten even less often than chicken Kiev, and yet we felt instantly confident in pronouncing it utterly historic. Imagine a spongy Devil’s Tower coated in the very best wine reduction, one whose interior is constructed of the finest beef, and perhaps you will begin to understand the simple majesty of the whole thing. Anyone who finds themselves within a mile of St. James Park ought to feast on such a pudding at least once in a lifetime. It is the sort of dish that once eaten, never leaves you.
The same might be said of London, of course, which begs the question of why most tourists insist on taking only the most superficial bites out of the city. In its dark alleyways and hidden locales and quiet pockets, authentic deliciousness may still be found. It is the tourist’s job to seek such deliciousness out. It is one of the great glories of traveling.
Rates this fall at the Stafford Hotel start at around $480 a night. For information, visit thestaffordlondon.com.