English eccentricity meets mid-century Americana in this historic hotel
Mice and hotels are rarely the most comfortable of bedfellows. But in one corner of St. James's, if you happened to wander into the bar of the Stafford Hotel at 11am or 5pm at the end of the ’noughties you wouldn’t just have seen a mouse propping up a bar stool, you’d have seen one with a sizable appetite for gin and tonics.
Known as the White Mouse, the real name of this stiff-backed, fiercely-proud creature was Nancy Wake. The non de plume came about due to her quite startling ability to get away, repeatedly, from the Nazis in her role as a Resistance spy. Her Houdini-esque abilities resulted in her becoming the most decorated woman in the entire Second World War.
A key element of the network that helped Dunkirk survivors, Allied airmen and Jews to safety, Nancy eventually had to flee occupied France for London, leaving behind her husband who was tortured and killed by soldiers on the hunt for the White Mouse.
Parachuting back into France for the D-Day invasion, living rough and organising and training 7,000 Maquisards it would be fair to say that after being awarded the George Medal, the American Medal of Freedom and two of the French Croix de Guere honours, Nancy was more than entitled to take things easy. Thus, until her death in 2011, Wake stayed at the Stafford free of charge, her bill being partially paid by Prince Charles.
The White Mouse lived to be 98 years old and, were she around today, she would notice precious little difference in the American Bar, the most historic and most wilfully eccentric part of the Stafford Hotel, a tiny piece of the United States tucked into a demure corner of St. James's.
Look upwards when you head into the narrow bar and, above the leather armchairs and polished mahogany tables hangs a collage of Americana – all donated by visiting customers. Football helmets, Ivy League ties, baseball caps and even a pair of Evander Holyfield’s boxing gloves all stand testament to a drinking space that holds a very special place in the hearts of many a Stateside visitor.
It all stems back to the 1940s when the then-young St. James's hotel (it opened in 1912) first attempted to attract the ever increasing number of American visitors to London; firstly, those arriving via ocean liners for vacations and latterly those arriving in fatigues after the outbreak of the Second World War.
The American (and also Canadian) officer class found the newly opened American Bar to be an ideal spot to imbibe the drinks they coveted from home. This was one of the very few places in the capital where the barmen were trained in the art of making Manhattan, Old Fashioned and Corpse Reviver cocktails.
The bar had an extra advantage underneath all this in the form of vast cellars which could double up as an air raid shelter. Venturing down narrow steps today, the cellars still contain hundreds of bottles of, mostly French, wine as well as vintage contraptions which were used for bottling – until after the Second World War wine was still brought down here by the barrel.
The failure of an attempt by Michael Caine to turn the cellar into a nightclub at the tail end of the 1960s means that the cellars remain much as they were during the war: detritus from that far off era still lies undisturbed in these musty, dusty depths.
Walk past the front cellar, now converted into a banqueting room, and turn left and you’ll find a narrow hatch with a crudely written wooden sign above it. This is the HQ of the Better ‘Ole Club, with membership exclusively reserved for regular American Bar patrons who have an interest in the two great wars of the 20th century.
With a capacity of around five people at a squeeze, this alcove is done out to resemble a Great War foxhole, complete with sandbags and gas masks, genuine flight manifests from American fighter pilots and framed wartime newspaper cuttings from the Cleveland News. Rumour has it, though never proven, that at one stage there was a passageway that led directly from these cellars to Buckingham Palace, just a few hundred yards away.
The Better ‘Ole Club is, despite its exclusivity, far from the most comfortable spot for a drink and it comes as no surprise to learn that there are no records of the White Mouse ever venturing down here for one of her famously stiff gin and tonics.
Above ground and, away from the American Bar, English elements of the Stafford slowly and discreetly begins to make themselves known. Rooms in the main buildings, the newer suite-only mews building and the old stable block have the sprawling feel of an officer class cabin on a vintage ocean liner; all dark woods, smooth leather chairs, marble bathrooms and tonnes of milk chocolate, caramel and cream. Take a deep bath in Room 601 in the main building and you get a clear view of the London Eye while you’re soaking in the suds.
The rooms are clearly geared towards American travellers. US plug socket adaptors are already placed in the walls and the living room tables in the suites come complete with copies of Esquire and National Geographic.
But it’s on the walls that native visuals start to emerge with vintage prints of flora and fauna that can all be found in adjoining Green Park – accessed by what must surely be London’s narrowest passageway, directly opposite the hotel’s entrance.
The wall prints are discreet nods to Britishness. The restaurant, on the other hand, is as patriotic as an Elgar concerto played to a backdrop of pirouetting Red Arrows and Hugh Grant eating a pork pie on the lawn at Glyndebourne.
The Game Bird, presided over by head chef Jozef Rogulski is an entirely unapologetic love letter to the Great British Larder. Immense flower displays, deep carpets, backgammon boards and a display cabinet full of partridge and beef ribs tells us one thing immediately: this is not a place in which to try and order a hot dog and fries.
Cometh the lunch hour and cometh the salmon trolley, wheeled with sombre aplomb by waiting staff who slice heavenly, slippery slabs of eel and mackerel as well as Loch Duart salmon here served with a surprisingly dainty beetroot cure
Steamed suet puddings with steak and ale, London Particular (a starter of ham, split peas and mascarpone, Colchester rock oysters, roast pigeon and whole stuffed partridge) feature on a menu which, on paper at least, seems to have the potential to propel even the most gluttonous of diners into a two-day food coma.
But a deftness of touch by Jozef’s team alongside a clear adoration of native ingredients saves the day. Dishes here are allowed to sing without the concomitant orchestral slush of garnishes and emulsions there’s a courage to the simplicity here – beautiful constituent components are displayed in full, naked view.
No dish exemplifies this unabashed boldness better than the chicken Kiev: a dish that, despite the claims of Ukrainian, Russian and French food historians, was actually invented by Cathy Chapman, a British product developer for Marks and Spencer’s in the 1970s.
Served with a leather apron lest the explosive garlic butter drench one’s attire, the breadcrumbs that adorn the indecently juicy Norfolk black chicken are the stuff of decadence itself. A hedgehog-sized slab of fried, crispy sybaritic joy, accompanied by four thick coat button sized wheels of truffle placed votively on a small hillock of pale yellow mashed potato makes for the kind of dish that could make even the most die-hard Remain-er start wanting to sing Rule Britannia through a veil of Laurie Lee’s tears.
Afterwards, the boulevards of St. James's’ itself await with their quietly, yet defiantly English panoply of vintners, haberdashers and cigar merchants. Those in the know though, are aware that, even in this most quintessentially English of neighbourhoods there lies the Stafford, a long-running paean to what remains, within these walls at least, an enduring and very special relationship.
16-18 St James's Place, St. James's, London SW1A 1NJ