'Discovering Pennethorne’s was a revelation'

Pennethorne’s Cafe and Bar, Somerset House

Mon—Fri 8am—10pm, Sat 10am—10pm, Sun closed

The blurb

Named for Sir James Pennethorne, the architect of the New Wing of Somerset House, where it is located, Pennethorne’s reinvents post-work drinks via their creative cocktails and thoughtful wine list, alongside well-chosen, snack-like food pairings.

The style & crowd

There’s a 19th-century feel to the surroundings, with walls of jostling paintings, antiquated-looking maps and busts of Pennethorne, mixed with a modern bistro—all dangling exposed lightbulbs and a communal centre table on which to lay out food offerings. There is intriguing detailing too, such as pins on the world map highlighting where the in-house coffees are from, which makes the place feel personal and cared-for.

The other inhabitants, when we arrive on a busy Thursday evening, seem to be primarily professionals, colleagues or friends who work in the nearby streets of central London, or indeed in Somerset House itself. There is an unobtrusive, pleasant buzz that continues throughout the evening.

The food

We arrived with empty stomachs and greedy eyes, so ended up basically ordering the whole menu—it is meant, I think, more as accompaniment nibbles, but worked surprisingly well doing it this way.

The fig and apricot bread was a stellar start—lots of fruit and good density of bread. From the ‘Tins and Pots’ section we ordered the Smoked Mackerel, Spicy Aubergine and a Pulled Pork hot dish that was substituted for the Beef pot, which wasn’t available that night. We couldn’t have been happier with the replacement though, prettily delicate and earthily moreish as it was, and the aubergine pot was also memorable, with the spice of the flavour not aggressive but coming in more as a warming aftertaste. The mackerel was pleasant, though surprisingly bland, especially for a fish that can be so flavourful.

We also indulged in both the meat and cheese selections, which were entirely worthwhile. The Iberico replacement was soft, fresh and full of flavour, Bresaola salty and meaty, Salami more delicate and less greasy than it often is, which was welcomed, and the Cornish Copa the stand-out on the plate, with a beautiful balanced taste.

There were a couple of replacements too in the cheeses, but the sort of good taste and judgement exhibited in the food selected for the menu here carries through into any substitutions—frankly it’s the sort of place you feel you could just give free reign to ply you with dishes as they chose, and would never be left unsatisfied. My favourites of the plate were a smoky, creamy soft cheese with an interesting savoury flavour, and the blue, which had a fruity mould undertone that made it seem truly alive.

The drink

The staff were endlessly helpful, especially the drinks maestro, who pulled one after another delicious wine out of his hat, on top of a selection of unusual but unanimously enjoyable martinis and other cocktails. My highlight of the wine list was the Cotes de Gascogne Blanc 2013, which I could have drunk all night (though at that point I probably didn’t need to!).

All in all, discovering Pennethorne’s was a revelation—it has exactly the sort of sleek but friendly service you expect from far more expensive options, in a beautiful setting, in the even larger beautiful setting of Somerset House itself, with all its exhibitions and activities. For a relaxed, languid evening of drinking and catching up, or even full evening sustenance that is greater than the sum of its many delicious parts, you couldn’t find better in the area.

Pennethorne’s Cafe Bar, New Wing, Somerset House, London, WC2R; www.pennethornescafe.co.uk; 020 3751 0570

Bars & Pubs |