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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 13th May 2005


"The thing I don't understand is why anyone would want to name a restaurant after an unmanned military aircraft," said my dining companion. He thought this was so absurdly inappropriate he was tempted to order a "daisy cutter" from the cocktail barman, a "black hawk" from the headwaiter ("They always go down well") and a "smart bombe" from the desert chef.

He was so pleased with this little riff--he's an aspiring stand-up comedian--I almost didn't have the heart to point out the framed letter from PG Wodehouse on the wall. It was David Niven, one of the original investors in the restaurant, who came up with the idea of naming it after Bertie Wooster's favourite club, possibly because there's a dry-cleaners opposite called "Jeeves". A black and white publicity shot of Niven also takes pride of place on the wall, right next to one of Frankie Vaughan.

In a sense, my friend's mistake was understandable since this restaurant has more in common with a fully-automatic, state-of-the-art spy plane than the riotous gentleman's club of Plumb's imagination. As you come through the front door, the ultra-smooth maitre 'd welcomes you with a flash of his white teeth and you can't help noticing that all the waiters are standing to attention at their stations, waiting to greet you as you walk past. This is more than just a smooth operation; it's a well-oiled military machine. If you tried throwing a bread roll in here I imagine a couple of MPs would emerge from the wings and drag you off to the stockade.

Drones has had mixed fortunes since it first threw open its doors in 1972, at one stage sinking under the captaincy of Antony Worrall Thompson. But ever since Marco Pierre White took the helm in 2001 it has been plain sailing. I have mixed feelings about the White Star Line, Marco's restaurant group, but you'd have to be pretty mean-spirited not to acknowledge his achievement here. Diners are cosseted in a luxurious, chocolate interior, while fleet-footed waiters scuttle back and forth over a parquet floor with a mixture of English and French perennials.

I started with potted shrimps and followed up with smoked haddock, while my companion began with a plate of anchovies, progressed to magret of duck and finished off with Rice Pudding. Apart from the anchovies, which looked as though they'd been deposited on the plate straight out of a tin, we had no complaints. Indeed, my classic English nursery food was so good that if Guy and Madge had dropped in, as they're reported to do from time to time, I could easily have been at the Ivy.

Our fellow diners were pretty much who you'd expect to see on a Thursday afternoon in Belgravia. There was a well-dressed older man entertaining a Graham Norton look-a-like at the table opposite--Jeeves and Woofter--while on our left two little old ladies sat side by side, picking their way through a Dover sole. As far as I could tell, the only celebrities in the restaurant were the ones lining the walls, encased in glass frames. These black-and-white photographs of 20th Century icons are one of the hallmarks of David Collins, Marco's favourite interior designer.

Will this slick military machine take its place among London's permanent armoury of restaurants, or is it destined to be shot down by a group of insurgents? Drones has been described as the Ivy of Belgravia, but a four-year successful run is little more than a blip on the radar screen in this battleground. There's little doubt that Marco Pierre White has got all his guns pointing in the right direction here, but, so far, he's proved better at organising quick, guerrilla raids than waging long-term campaigns.

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