The British penchant for al fresco dining is deeply ingrained and understandable given the limited days of fine weather in the summer months. Even those –usually men –who spend hardly any time in the kitchen think they can cook when faced with an outdoor charcoal grill and raw meat.
However, the supposed joys of barbecues on the patio, picnics in the park and terrace dining in restaurants and are plagued by the inconsistencies of cooking, insect attack and the unpredictability of the weather. For those who prefer to avoid these pitfalls yet enjoy the fresh air and outdoor beauty, and not just in the summer, Inn the Park, has filled a much needed gap. Ground breaking in being the first British park restaurant to open all year round, with all day eating, its idyllic location by the lake in St James’s Park gives it an unrivalled position in the heart of the capital.
Part of the Peyton and Byrne group, Inn the Park is far removed from the stereotypical shack-like park cafés with their outside foldaway tables and chairs and collapsible parasols. A permanent single storey pavilion designed by Hopkins architects, it is cleverly set into a gently rising hillock, so benefitting thermally from being embedded in the ground. A grass covered roof offers excellent views of the lake from the upper terrace bar. Although beautiful all year round and at most times of the day, sunset on a warm evening in the height of summer in St James Park holds a particular magic.
The exterior looks neither like a “Swiss chalet” nor a “park folly” as two commentators have described it. In a natural grey palette which harmonises well with the natural surroundings, it features a glass wall of sliding panels and a wide veranda which is heated in winter and offers shade in summer. The honey coloured timber interior, designed by Tom Dixon, provides space for a 100 seat restaurant, with bespoke furniture and fittings of rugged, natural and sustainable materials. A recent refurbishment to celebrate its tenth anniversary has seen new bar on the main terrace, larchwood flooring, lighting and furnishings. Wide tubular steel and leather chairs provide comfortable seating around well-spaced tables. Therefore the attractive surroundings are not confined just to the outside the restaurant.
Given its prime location and popularity with tourists, local residents, and public servants – it is a stone’ s throw from many Whitehall departments – Inn the Park serves breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner whilst also offering a “Grab and Go” self-service section for sandwiches, salads, cakes and pastries. Fine Dining Guide visited on a weekday evening in July to sample the dinner menu.
In line with the overall philosophy of organic sustainability, Head chef Colin Kelly’s seasonally changing menu focuses largely on British produce sourced from local specialist suppliers, often artisan producers and rare breed farmers. The carte comprises six each of starters (£3.50 – £11), mains (£13- £24) and desserts, including cheese, (£2.90 – £8.50), helps to ensure consistency of cooking whilst offering a reasonable choice of meat, fish and vegetarian options at a competitive price point for central London
Although not intended to be fine dining, dishes are imaginative, generously portioned, accurately timed, well-seasoned and attractively presented. Ingredients are mainly British, but cooking can adopt European influences as seen in seabass tartar, beef carpaccio, and a stew of squid and hake with chorizo.
Diners might want to indulge in a pre prandial cocktail – Sage Bison, Plum and Elderflower Julep or Thyme Colin – or choose from a selection of craft beers. The wine list includes 16 by the glass (starting from £4.75), including several rosés and sparkling wines.
A salad starter of utterly fresh Devon crab saw the deliciously sweet white meat dressed with a light mayonnaise. Ripe, creamy chunks of avocado were mixed with the Romaine leaves and broad beans and given added interest by a scattering of crisp gingerbread crumbs. Delicious in itself, the dish might have benefitted from more crumbs, a citrus lift and a little of the brown crab meat for extra flavour. (Why is the brown meat so generally underused?)
Another starter of Carpaccio of beef had been lightly smoked, dressed in oil and served with deep fried capers and a celeriac remoulade. This was a happy marriage of balanced flavours and textures, the mustardy qualities of the remoulade complementing the thin slices of beef particularly well.
It was pleasing, given the restaurant’s sourcing policy, to see Cornish Megrim sole, far more sustainable than its more fashionable and expensive Dover and Lemon sole cousins, offered as a main course. Whilst not as delicate and refined in texture, Megrim sole still has a pleasant flatfish quality. Served on the bone to retain its succulence, a whipped shrimp butter added richness and crustacean flavour.
Sides of seasonal buttered fresh peas, green beans and shallots and Cornish new potatoes went well with this dish.
Rib eye steak, cooked medium rare as requested on the new state of the art BBQ, was full of bovine flavour produced by its good marbling. Richness was added by smoked bone marrow and onion puree and a reduction of the juices brought the elements together. Chunky hand cut chips, crisp on the outside with a fluffy interior, proved the perfect accompaniment.
Desserts are of the decadent variety, ranging from sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream to Eton Mess. An ITP sundae, with layers of ice cream, fruit and whipped cream, fortunately not of Knickerbocker Glory proportions, was sampled, satisfying the sugar hit that was craved. Simple hand-made ice cream of velvety texture, provided a simpler alternative.
Service at Inn the Park is young, welcoming and eager to please, being overseen by restaurant manager Ross Davis. The ambience is relaxed and informal, in line with the wishes of the majority of those who eat out nowadays.
Overall, it is not difficult to see why Inn the Park has been successful over the past decade, combining the pleasures of al fresco eating with the security of comfort and good food if the weather deteriorates. Given its recent makeover and enticing menus, it is likely to go from strength to strength. Fine Dining Guide will be sure to visit again, perhaps for lunch or afternoon tea or for Ribs on the Roof,’ a summer promotion daily from 5pm , offering a half-rack of ribs with spicy coleslaw and a Saxon beer for £10.