How does a restaurant make the transition from being trendy to being fashionable? How does a place go from being flavour of the month to a perennial favourite? No matter how well Zuma, E&O and Sketch are doing at the moment, they've got a long way to go before they pose any threat to Le Caprice, Nobu and the Ivy. There are plenty of Ben Affleks, Matt Damons and Jude Laws out there, but very few Paul Newmans, Robert Duvalls and Clint Eastwoods.
La Famiglia is undoubtedly a restaurant that has made the leap. Located at the wrong end of the King's Road, it's a Chelsea institution, a destination restaurant that's as popular with It Girls as it is with their dowager grandmothers. It may not be the hottest restaurant in town, but it still ranks among the top 50, which isn't bad considering it's been open for 28 years. On Friday nights you might even have difficulty getting a table.
So how did La Famiglia pull it off? Well, I hope the chef won't mind me saying so, but it probably isn't the food. Quinto Cecchetti has been in the kitchen since almost the day it opened which is one reason why the menu hasn't changed in over a quarter of a century. I had Tonno alla San Corrado--raw tuna accompanied by a tomato and onion salad--followed by Orata alla Versigliese--sea bream and mashed potato. It wasn't spectacular--the salad was a little too oily and the bream was swimming in rather a bland sauce--but it wasn't half bad. I'd describe it as upmarket comfort food: solid, not too demanding and always the same.
It's not the ambience, either. With its blue-and-white candy-stripe design motif it reminded me a little of the Patsy character in Absolutely Fabulous: a once glamorous institution that's gone slightly to seed. On the day I had lunch there three aging Chelsea playboys were gradually working their way through the wine list on one side of me while a sharp young stockbroker was trying to separate an old lady from her life savings on the other. I got the impression she was stringing him along simply for the free lunch. Like so many Chelsea landmarks--the Arts Club, the World's End pub, the Duke of York's barracks--it's pervaded by an atmosphere of genteel poverty.
No, the X-factor that has enabled La Famiglia to survive the vicissitudes of changing fashions is Alvaro Maccioni, the Italian owner. Within this little corner of South-West London, Maccioni is something of a legend. His first restaurant was a trattoria on the King's Road known simply as Alvaro's. It was frequented by the likes of Jean Shrimpton, David Bailey and Michael Caine and became so popular its telephone number was soon ex-directory. He went on to open a nightclub called Aretusa that became the base of operations for the Chelsea Set in the Swinging Sixties and established a chain of restaurants that he sold for a small fortune in 1972. He retired to Tuscany, but three years later returned to London to open La Famiglia. The same customers who'd grown up on his Spaghetti Vongole followed him to his new restaurant--and they brought their children with them.
"What's happened here is very rare in a restaurant," he told me as I was on my way out. "We're now attracting the third generation. Normally, children don't like to go to the places where their parents go, but we're getting the grandchildren as well. In the evenings there's no one here over 40. It's unbelievable."
He says he's looking forward to the day when he can pass the spatula to his daughter, but that might not be such a good idea. Without this living relic of Chelsea's glory days holding court at the front, I'm not sure this place would be so popular. Every successful restaurant has a secret weapon and La Famiglia's is Alvaro Maccioni.