Since opening its doors on a lesser-trodden swathe of St James’s in 1912, The Stafford has become known as one of London’s most understated, elegant hotels. Celebrities, business travellers and the generally well-heeled have long appreciated the near-anonymity offered by the hotel, which is home to the iconic American Bar. But while that institution needs little introduction, the high-grade hotel has struggled to match the appeal of this clandestine cocktail cavern with its food offering. This is set to change with the recent launch of The Game Bird, which takes over the hotel’s nucleus, offering British classics with a slant from executive chef James Durrant.
Though the restaurant is soon to open at the time of our chat, Durrant is a relaxed figure. Cutting his teeth crafting intricately-plated dishes at some of London’s most well-known Michelin starred restaurants including Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road and Maze, he has also immersed himself in hearty British fare – leaving London to open his own pub in the Hampshire countryside before returning to the capital to lead the ranks at The Game Bird.
Durrant says that managing a pub “in a rural little village” has helped him focus on the complete experience at The Game Bird. “It gave me a broader insight into running a restaurant, rather than just running a kitchen,” says the chef. “People aren’t just coming for their food or the wine. It’s a package. The whole thing is an experience, and that’s what we’ve got to try and offer.”
The chef, originally from Chester, began work on a new menu that would appeal to the hotel’s diverse customer base. “To begin with, we went down the route of St James’s’ traditions, inspired by the gentlemen’s clubs; but we realised it was all getting a bit manly and we were cutting off 50 per cent of our market straightaway.” Durrant “took a step back and looked at the menu again”, lightening up some of the dishes. “We’ve tried to create a broad menu that starts at 12 o’clock and runs through the afternoon and into dinner service,” he says, noting that the emphasis was on seasonality. “It’s about what’s British and what’s in season – what we can use and celebrate – because this is St James’s, and The Stafford is a beautiful British hotel.”
Simple, British, classic food – there’s not much of it around actually.
The menu is indebted to British culinary traditions and the abundance of quality produce available on these shores – somewhat of a rarity in London’s contemporary dining scene, which has seen an influx of restaurants with global influences. “Simple, British, classic food – there’s not much of it around actually,” says Durrant, before thinking of notable exceptions that are still flying the flag for Britain. “There are places like Rules and Scott’s – restaurants that the hotel’s clientele have been going to for years. They do it and they’re successful; but we think, ‘How are we going to do this for The Stafford?’”
Seasonality is perhaps the most important aspect of Durrant’s cooking ethos. He says that the right produce is the starting point for every dish he makes, and is integral to The Game Bird’s offering. “The thing I really focus on, and the way we train the guys downstairs, is that it’s all about the produce that comes through the door to start with – and then it’s the way we treat the produce and the way we respect and look after it, cooking it properly with techniques that get the best out of it.” Durrant works closely with British suppliers so that the restaurant can get the freshest ingredients. “Our suppliers are amazing. The quality is outstanding.”
The signature dish on the menu is named after the restaurant: The Game Bird is an evolving dish that changes according to which bird and vegetables are in season. “We’re starting with pigeon because we can shoot them all year round. That will be served with parsnips and cavolo nero, little fondant potatoes and wild mushrooms – and then on the side, we’ll serve a take on bullshot – traditionally a beef consommé finished with vodka. Here, we’ve made a pigeon consommé and we’re finishing it with sloe gin.” Speaking of alcohol, one of the biggest changes to the restaurant space, which occupies the central ground floor room of the hotel, now features a bar where guests can perch while enjoying cocktails and a bite to eat. “I think for travellers and single diners especially, it’s nice to sit at the bar. It’s less self-conscious than sitting at a table on your own.”
The Game Bird aims to extend the friendly, unstuffy atmosphere that The Stafford already offers, tapping into the more informal dining experiences that London’s foodies currently crave. “The hotel is approached in a very professional but also relaxed way. Yes, it’s five stars; but it doesn’t feel like that sometimes. It’s great and efficient, but we wanted to make the restaurant friendly – not starched.”
The Game Bird is open now at The Stafford, 16-18 St James’s Place.