I've lived in London all my life. And I've never really thought that Northumberland Avenue was anything other than the road that connects Trafalgar Square to the Embankment. If anything, the street has always seemed a row of anonymous buildings on the edge of the ministries in Whitehall – giving it the air of something out of a John Le Carre novel.
But while I'm right on the spy link – more later, I'm wrong on the facelessness of the street. It has a fascinating past, and one that diners can relive at Boyd's, a large restaurant hidden behind a small sign.
Boyd's had a total rethink this spring. The menu changed completely although, happily, there was no real change to the décor. For this is a London eaterie with a wow factor – and that's before the food.
As you enter the late Victorian (1887) creation, originally built as a hotel, it's hard not to be impressed by the high ceilings, the marble, and the stunning staircase. It's the same period as many of the nearby theatres.
It's worth a visit even if you just have a glass of water. We went to eat. And while the large space has a variety of formats such as a bar, and easy chairs, we opted for the traditional table. Boyd's tries to source everything within easy distance of London. We started with a glass of British sparkling wine – the law prevents calling it “Champagne” but you get the picture – from Nyetimber in Sussex. The grapes are French, the soil is English. It was very good. You can have Champagne from Champagne if you really want. Wine starts from around £29 a bottle.
The “small plates” (all £5) are not that small so ignore anything about “tapas”. I had the Beef and Bone Marrow faggot, served with potato mash. It was a new taste – Boyd's is a lot about experimenting so some things will go wrong – but this worked. Firm but yielding. My partner went for the Salmon Tartar with avocado, mango and chilli which she simply pronounced “delicious”.
There are a couple of vegetarian dishes, but the main course main attraction is meat. The steak goes from £12 to a massive £125 depending on the cut and size – I opted for a ribeye (£24) from a farm in Sussex, while my partner went for the pork belly from Suffolk (£15).
What's really different is the grill. The restaurant has bought a Synergy unit (only invented in 2015) which, by injecting oxygen into the gas, seals and enhances the flavour. Whatever, both meat dishes were wonderful. The vegetables (£4 each) were a bit of an afterthought – fine but nothing special.
There's no bread, bad because I like it but good because I eat too much. Why the absence? It's not for doctrinaire reasons, according to general manager Fabien Babanini, but because he has yet to find a baker nearby to provide the standard he wants. As Boyd's is a place to linger – it has space and comfort – we went for puddings as well (around £6). My apple and hazelnut crumble had plenty of apple and was yummy even if the apple might have been sliced more thinly. My co-diner went for a Boyd's version of Eton Mess which she pronounced as good.
Back to the spies. For a long time, (from 1940 until 2006) the building was occupied by the Ministry of Defence which used it as a secure computer centre during the Falklands War. Happily, the MoD protected the décor.
A maze of top secret tunnels lies underneath Northumberland Avenue, and should you descend one floor to the subterranean toilets, you could easily imagine yourself in a Cold War adventure.
Boyds Grill & Wine Bar, 8 Northumberland Avenue, London, WC2N 5BY
Nearest stations: Charing Cross, Embankment
Tel: 020 7808 3344