From a restaurateurs point of view, few areas in London can be as tough to crack as Holland Park. The Belvedere isn't faring any better under Marco Pierre White than it did under Johnny Gold. The Zen chain has taken over the restaurant in the Kensington Hilton after Hiroko went under last year. Even Orsino's, the Italian place on Portland Road owned by the same people who own Orso's and Joe Allen's, now sleeps with the fishes. Holland Park is the Bermuda Triangle of the restaurant trade.
It's all the more remarkable, therefore, that Julie's is still standing after 35 years. Situated in Clarendon Cross--one of those fictitious neighbourhoods dreamt up an estate agent--Julie's first opened its doors in 1968 and is now a West London institution. If Richard Curtis ever makes a film called Holland Park you can be sure there'll be a scene in which Hugh Grant takes a girl on a date to Julie's.
So what's the secret of its success? Well, for one thing, the fact that it's been around for so long is a big help. As my colleague Craig Brown once observed, restaurant years are like dog years: surviving for one is the equivalent of surviving for seven in almost any other business. By that reckoning, Julie's is 245 years old (and Wilton's, which first opened its doors in 1742, is 1,827). I can't imagine that any West London boulevardier doesn't have the number for Julie's jotted down in his Little Black Book.
For another thing, the owners haven't made the classic mistake of trying to keep up with the times. Julie's is named after the Sixties interior decorator Julie Hodgess and her original designs--best described as "gothic bohemian"--have remained unchanged. With it's French colonial furniture and sumptuous velvet divans, it's like walking on to the set of the first Emmanuel film.
It's this slightly sleazy, erotic atmosphere that lies at the heart of Julie's success. For the purpose of writing this review I went there with my wife and five-month-old daughter, but on every previous occasion I'd been in much less salubrious company. Julie's is one of London's premier date restaurants and during my youth I must have snogged over a dozen girls in its dimly lit downstairs rooms. It's no coincidence that Captain Mark Philips celebrated his stag night here in 1973. The whole place reeks of sex.
Julie's isn't famous for its food, but the meal Caroline and I had there last week was perfectly respectable. I started with a smoked haddock and salmon terrine, followed by fried chicken with sweet potato and baked beetroot, while Caroline went for the vegetarian option: mushrooms in filo pastry accompanied by rocket and goat's cheese. It wasn't anything to write home about, just good, modern British cuisine. By Holland Park standards it was pretty inexpensive, too. The total bill came to less than £50.
One reason for this is that we ate in the upstairs brasserie, an area known as "Julie's Bar" which is a bit cheaper than the more formal dining area. In the main restaurant you have a choice of several rooms, each with their own name. There's the Forge, for instance, a pretty-in-pink, romantic room covered in fairy lights, and then there's the Garden Room, a large, airy space with a retractable roof and white iron furniture. Fortunately, none are very far from the Sitting Room, a subterranean den studded with dilapidated old sofas, also known as the Snog Pit.
Now that I'm happily married I can't see myself going back to Julie's very often. However, I have no doubt that in 18 years time, when my daughter is of dating age, she'll be dragged here by many an ambitious young buck. If they can get past the fat, red-faced, bald bloke standing outside with a shotgun, I wish them the best of luck.