Emily Rookwood visits one of the gems in Mayfair's gastronomic and social tapestry for a spot of eating and people watching
Franco's is a Mayfair stalwart. Opened as an Italian caf’ in 1946, it has become one of the places to be seen at lunchtime. It has offered – and continues to offer – fantastic people watching, from gentlemen smoking cigars on the pavement to elegant couples drinking martinis in the bar.
It has recently undergone a revamp, apparently to make it feel more like a private club. It is certainly inviting with red and white geometric wallpaper and deep red velvet chairs. The most inviting part, though, is walking to the front door past that warm orange glow of the heat lamps and through the dense cigar smoke that envelopes the entrance. There is a certain nostalgia to it.
Inside the staff are lovely and friendly but with enough formality to make you feel relaxed but not overly fussed over. Once you're seated, the people watching begins again – booming laughter from a table of businessmen and neatly dressed older ladies, dripping with diamonds and designer labels. It is a real treat for the socially nosey.
The menu is classically Italian and all very tempting, though some of the food is less well executed than you might hope. That isn't to say that anything was hugely problematic, just a bit of under-seasoning on a few dishes (which can be remedied at the table) and a slightly heavy batter on a deep fried courgette flower – more cod and chips than delicate tempura.
Mains, though, were successful. A roast monkfish with wild mushroom and polenta dish was simple but well cooked; everything was well cooked but the polenta needed a decent sprinkle of salt to give it some flavour. Duck and shallot ragu with strozzapreti might not have looked the most wonderful with a beige rather than deep sauce but, as we all know, looks can be deceiving. The pasta had great bite and the sauce was rich and full of flavour with generous melting chunks of duck meat strewn throughout. I would have eaten the portion at least twice over, if we are being honest.
As with many of these institutions, you don't go for the food you go to see and be seen. That said, if you order well here you can enjoy a very good meal and even if you don't the food is still perfectly passable. More importantly, you can enjoy the occasional waft of expensive cigar smoke drifting through the room as you watch the characters of Mayfair pass by. This is a reliable local that has been well loved and I am sure will continue to thrive.