Author talks and bookish dinners at Hardy’s Brasserie, Restaurant and Wine Bar, London W1: Cleo Rocos, Nicky Haslam’s Folly de Grandeur, French Noir and Frites, Bang Bang Chicken on the Lawn and more!
by Guy Sangster Adams
Once in a while one goes out for an evening to an event that from the very moment one arrives envelops one in that most wonderful feeling that is as intoxicating as it is hard to define – the closest attempts at a definition would be: a feeling of ‘coming home’, even though it’s one’s first time there, or, ‘oh so this is what I’ve been searching for so long’, without realising that one had been on a long quest. This happened to me the minute I stepped over the threshold of Hardy’s Brasserie, Restaurant and Wine Bar in London’s Marylebone for the latest instalment in their series of ‘author talks and bookish dinners’, which began in January this year, into an atmosphere already abuzz with conviviality, and also expectancy for the evening ahead.
The buzz was infectious despite the fact that I didn’t really know what to expect – I had been invited by a writer friend who then couldn’t make it but said that I should still go as she thought I would enjoy it – trusting her insight I did just that. I had for a second outside suddenly thought, ‘hold on I don’t know anyone here and I’m about to have dinner with strangers’. But I had no need to worry, I was warmly greeted by co-host, Rosie Apponyi, who sat me at table with a group of people all of whom after a very short while I was having to pinch myself that it was in fact the first time that I had met them and that we hadn’t all known each other for years.
But then this welcoming, friendly, relaxed atmosphere is not by chance for it is very much one of the key ingredients that Apponyi and Dominique de Bastarrechea intended that their events should have. Indeed the home from home feel has been a facet of Hardy’s popularity ever since it was opened in 1984 by de Bastarrechea’s father, the late Nick de Bastarrechea, with whom Dominique de Bastarrechea initially ran the restaurant in tandem after she graduated from Oxford University.
Apponyi and de Bastarrechea have been friends for a number of years and had been, as Apponyi tells me, “talking for while about wanting to create evenings combining our two great loves: food and books.” Their loves are also areas in which they both have a lot of knowledge and experience – Apponyi is editor and director of literary consultants, the Writing Room, prior to which she worked first at literary scout, Van Lear, before joining the literary agency, Capel & Land, where she represented a broad range of writers from literary fiction, such as Chibundu Onuzo, to the highly commercial, including Camilla Morton.
In addition to combining their twin passions the two were determined that the events would have a relaxed intimacy and accessibility to them. To this end they take place in the brasserie at Hardy’s (there is also a smaller, more formal restaurant, private rooms, and a cellar bar) a perfect setting with its candlelit informality mixed with an element of Parisian chic. The brasserie has a capacity for around 60 diners, the space could be opened out into the other rooms, but as Apponyi explains keeping everything in one room is very much part of creating the atmosphere of the nights, “we prefer it to be as intimate as possible, with everyone being squished into the same room as the author/speaker rather than spread out through the different rooms”.
The squishing is fun ( and it must be said that it’s a very sophisticated squishing!) and adds greatly to the individual buzz and informality of the events, as does the fact that the authors or speakers are very much in the mêlée at all stages of the evening, dining with the audience, and then speaking and reading in the midst of the tables, and also very accessible to chat with afterwards and to sign copies of their books. “We wanted to do something different,” says Apponyi, “so many book events are so stiff, and have such bad wine!”
Bad wine is simply never on the menu at Hardy’s as not only is de Bastarrechea’s eclectic wine list award-winning but has also played a primary role in establishing Hardy’s loyal and diverse clientele amongst whom famous faces include burlesque superstar/fashion icon, Dita Von Teese, London mayor, Boris Johnson, novelist and writer, Fay Weldon, and historian, curator, broadcaster, Dr Lucy Worsley.
Hardy’s have also built their reputation over the years with the quality of their food and new head chef, Sam Hughes, is very much building upon this reputation and continuing their tradition of honest brasserie favourites and seasonal menus. Hughes trained with Rowley Leigh at Kensington Place, was head chef under Raymond Blanc, and most recently was head chef at the Michelin-starred Oxfordshire restaurant, The Sir Charles Napier.
Therefore, not only do Hardy’s completely erase the curse of bad wine literary events with the quality of the wine and drinks served, but in conjunction with the wonderful food on the three course set menus which are central to their literary dinners, guests are transported into seventh heaven. Each menu is very cleverly and carefully crafted in relation to the authors and themes of their books at each event. Hughes, de Bastarrechea, and Apponyi also clearly have a lot of fun in styling and creating the menus, a sense of fun which also feeds into the enjoyableness of the evenings as a whole.
Thus in February for the evening with Philip Kerr, at which he gave an exclusive pre-publication preview of A Man Without Breath, the ninth novel in his internationally bestselling Bernie Gunther thriller series set in Germany during the Weimar Republic, World War II, and the Cold War, the menu included Bavarian beer, Reisling from the Rhine, schnitzel, strudel… after all of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, passers-by would have heard the assembled guests singing rousing Weimar songs.
Then later in February, to accompany Deborah Moggach reading from and talking about her latest novel, Heartbreak Hotel (Chatto & Windus, 2013), which is set in a decrepit B&B in rural Wales, the menu celebrated the principality with dishes including black beef carpaccio, mussels with leeks, Glamorgan sausages and steamed marmalade ‘Snowdon’ pudding.
On the evening that I went to Hardy’s the event, Viva Tequila!, was in celebration of Cleo Rocos’ new book, The Power of Positive Drinking (Square Peg, 2013). The comedy actress, producer and television presenter, who first came to fame in the 1980s as Kenny Everett’s sidekick in eight series of The Kenny Everett Television Show, is now also the President of The Tequila Society, has been crowned the UK’s first ‘tequilera’, and last year launched her own brand of 100% agave tequila, AquaRiva Premium Tequila. The Hardy’s literary evenings always begin at 7pm with complimentary aperitifs and in celebration of Rocos AquaRiva Margaritas were served. Which were followed by the delicious three-course meal the menu for which included, ceviche, vitello tonnato, slow-cooked chipotle pork, seabass in a salt crust, chargrilled squid and chorizo salad, watermelon granita, lime and tequila cheesecake.
After dessert Rocos took to the floor and was a wonderfully engaging, ebullient, hilarious, and charming raconteuse. The Power of Positive Drinking is presented as ‘a help yourself manual that guarantees partying success’ and has already made headlines around the world after Rocos spoke in an interview in the Sunday Times about the time she took Princess Diana to a gay bar, in male drag, in the company of Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett. At Hardy’s Rocos told a similarly outlandish and riotous story about how she and comedian and television presenter, Alan Carr, attempted to initiate a brothel breakout in Soho after an afternoon drinking in a bar opposite, as Rocos stormed the building and attempted to set the prostitutes free, before their none too happy pimp arrived!
‘Casting’ is fundamental to the success of any event; there is a real skill in combining the separate ingredients of speakers, food, drinks, venue, and indeed, the audience themselves. In all their events to date, the trio of de Bastarrechea, Apponyi, and Hughes have proved themselves to be supremely talented in creating evenings that are as delicious as they are delightful, inspiring as they are impressive: a truly delectable feast for the senses.