What's the most daunting task in the restaurant business? To open a new restaurant and turn it into the talk of the town is hard. To take over the management of a struggling restaurant and make it profitable is harder still. But the hardest thing of all is to take a restaurant that was once the bee's knees and restore it to its former glory. That was the Sisyphean labour faced by Jesus Adorno, the Bolivian maitre 'd of the Caprice, when Daphne's, the 95-seat Tuscan restaurant on Draycott Avenue, was taken over by Caprice Holdings two-and-a-half years ago.
When Daphne's first threw open its doors in 1964 it was an overnight success. Named after the theatrical agent Daphne Rye, it became an instant hit, boasting a group of regulars that included Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness and Tony Richardson. Even the young Prince Charles could occasionally be spotted entertaining some gorgeous young dolly bird in a Mary Quant outfit in one of its discreet booths.
Its star gradually began to fade, alongside that of the Chelsea Set, and it was very much out of the limelight when it was taken over by the infamous Mogens Tholstrup in 1991. The Scandinavian playboy set about sprucing it up, adding an extension and replacing the French menu with an Italian one, and in no time at all it had become a hot favourite among the Sloane Ranger set. For a brief period, it even eclipsed San Lorenzo. Prince Charles may not have come back, but it became a home away from home for his frisky young wife.
Mogens sold out to the Belgo Group in 1998, by which time the restaurant had once again sunk into the doldrums, and it finally became part of Caprice Holdings in November, 2001. For Daphne's to become the fourth member of a group that consisted of the Ivy, the Caprice and J Sheekey was a little like Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb asking Will Young if he'd like to join the Bee Gees. Nevertheless, if anyone could pull this off it was Jesus. This legendary front-of-house man is, quite simply, the Brian Epstein of restaurant managers.
It may be a little early to pass judgement, but if the experience I had at Daphne's last week is anything to go by it's well on its way to becoming the most fashionable restaurant in SW3. Keiran Terry, formerly headwaiter at the Caprice, has been brought in as general manager and he's galvanised the staff into producing the kind of food and service you'd expect from a member of this group. I was accompanied by my sister-in-law and her four-month-old daughter, but the waiting staff couldn't have been more accommodating, even going so far as to discreetly look away when she started breastfeeding at the table.
I tested our waiter's patience even further by asking if I could start with one of the main courses on the set lunch menu--pancetta-and-pea linguine--and then follow with some new season lamb from the a la carte menu. He didn't bat an eyelid and only charged me £5.75, which is a bargain for food of this quality. In between feeds, my sister-in-law managed to shoehorn in a pecorino salad and some pan-fried scallops, both of which were mouth-wateringly good. If only I hadn't had the chocolate and honeycomb parfait I might have been able to slip away without loosening my belt, but that was the best thing of all.
As you'd expect from a restaurant opposite a Jimmy Choo emporium, the other diners were primarily good-looking young women who were treating themselves to lunch after a hard morning spent getting their nails done at the nearby Bliss Spa. Daphne's is tricked out like a Tuscan farmhouse and the contrast between the sticky humidity of Brompton Cross and the restaurant's cool interior made it particularly inviting on the afternoon I went there. In the restaurant trade, August is the cruellest month, but Daphne's was like a little oasis.
By the end of the year, I wouldn't be at all surprised if Jesus has pulled off a miracle and once again turned Daphne's into the hottest ticket in town.