After a stuttering start, summer has finally arrived and it's alfresco time again. Where better to go, then, for a spot of breakfast or lunch or dinner than Inn the Park, in the tree-shaded oasis of St James's Park, not far from Horse Guards Parade in central London?
The restaurant, opened in April by Oliver Peyton's company Gruppo, was launched under the banner "a brand new British caf‚". That description suits the grab-and-go side of the operation but isn't quite so appropriate for the full-service restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner in traditional style, and was described by the Times food critic, Giles Coren, as "really quite posh". (He rated the restaurant 8/10, by the way.)
One side of the dining area can be opened to the terrace, so the sounds of the park mix with the buzz of customers. It's light and airy inside and there's plenty of wood and white table linen. Bookings are taken, customers are received formally at the door, and the waiting staff are uniformed. "Quite posh" is right. In fact, it only becomes "caff-like" when you realise that you're drinking wine out of school tumblers.
The restaurant, which has been building a steady trade throughout the summer, has bedded down, and last month saw chef Mark Bradbury take over from executive chef William Weston, who launched the restaurant but has now gone off to work on new developments with Peyton.
Bradbury is 39 and hails from Sheffield. Like many of his fellow Yorkshiremen, he's economical with words, but his experience of working in some of London's finer and larger restaurants speaks for itself.
He started out as a commis at the Ritz, moved to the Halcyon to work with James Robins and then, after a two-year spell in New Zealand, returned to London to work for the Smollensky Group. He joined the Bluebird team for its opening in 1997, and also worked with John Torode in 2000 during the opening period of Smiths of Smithfield.
Inn the Park seats 80 inside the restaurant, 60 outside, with additional seating inside and out for customers using the self-service offering. Average seated covers in the restaurant so far this summer have been 150 at lunchtime and about 130 for dinner. Customers range from MPs and business people to tourists and "ladies who do tea".
The menus offer choices ranging from a "healthy option" fresh fruit plate for breakfast at £4.50, to sea bream with Dorset crayfish and tomato vinaigrette for dinner at £17.50. A selection of sandwiches, scones from the on-site bakery and a choice of teas costs £12 in the afternoon.
Changes are made daily to all the menus, but some favourites have become permanent fixtures. Top of the list are the prawn cocktail with Marie Rose dressing (£7.50), Cornish crab with mayonnaise on toast (£12) and the Park Ploughman's (£12.50). Recent best sellers have included grilled Buccleuch Estate rib-eye with green beans and horseradish cream (£17.50); grilled calves' liver with bacon and sage (£14); and roast suckling pig with champ and apple sauce (£15.50).
Pork has always been a winner at Inn the Park. Critics Jay Rayner of the Observer and Matthew Norman of the Sunday Telegraph raved about its pork chop. "The kitchen," adjudged Rayner, "really knows how to make a pork chop sing."
Bradbury says that changes made to the menus are often driven by seasonal offerings. The chilled pea and mint soup being enjoyed by customers at the moment is a case in point.
The wine list for Inn the Park has been compiled by Peter McCombie, who works with Peyton on putting together wine lists for his other restaurants, notably the Atlantic Bar & Grill and Isola. Prices range from £12.50 for a bottle of French Le Lesc Plaimont 2003 to £30 for a Premier Cru Fourneaux, J-J Girard Burgundy 2000. There's nothing extraordinarily expensive on the list.
Bradbury is confident that the new British caf‚ will be a long-term success - even in winter - because it is so accessible.
Inn the Park
St James's Park
Tel: 020 7451 9999.
What's on the menu - Great British breakfast, £9.50
- Black pudding and poached egg, £7.50
- Smoked Gressingham duck breast with Secretts Farm leaves and apple and rosemary jelly, £8.50
- Gratin of flat field mushrooms, spring greens and Tymsboro goats' cheese, £8.50
- Pan-fried fillet of pollock with spinach and Denhay bacon, £12.50
- Seared fillet of salmon with samphire and artichokes, £12.50
- Mixed berry meringue, £4.50
- Rhubarb and almond cake, £4.50
- Plate of Neal's Yard British cheeses, chutney and water biscuits, £7.50