The Belvedere's new head chef Billy Reid never planned a move back to the capital when he left for the countryside five years ago. That was in 1999, as head chef at Marco Pierre White's and Jimmy Lahoud's Soho restaurant L'Escargot. He then left for the Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire - where he earned a Michelin star - some travelling, and most recently, the kitchen at 2XS in Marlborough, Wiltshire. "I couldn't have come back to the West End. I love the area, but" - he says with a smile - "it can get hold of you."
When Lahoud asked him to take the reins at the Belvedere in Holland Park, however, it was a different kind of temptation. For a chef there must be few settings in London which you would choose over the Belvedere to practise your arts. The dining room is sumptuous yet intimate; the distinguished park setting free from competition; and the local clientele polite and, of course, loaded. "If it hadn't been the Belvedere I wouldn't have done it," says Reid.
But Reid's arrival, with his partner Julie Blay to run front of house, also marked a new direction for the restaurant. The Belvedere had, according to Reid, become something of a "secret society". Lahoud's plan was to attract more people through the door - and the new menu was central to that strategy. "Jimmy's idea was to take elements of what Marco was doing at Drones, ie, an Italian-style menu with starters, then salads and pastas, the mains, then puddings," Reid says. "It opens the menu up, gives more options for those who want lighter meals while retaining a three- or even four-course structure for those who want to go large."
Incidentally, the MPW-Lahoud partnership is still very much intact, Reid says - and the Belvedere's signs, still bearing Marco's name six months after reopening, back this up. But responsibility for the group has been split, with White busy opening Frankie's.
Reid, a short, stocky Lancastrian who still manages to look at you as if he towered three feet above you, has devised a straight-talking menu of hearty British dishes and French brasserie classics, with some risottos, salads and pasta dishes thrown in. In tone many of these resemble the Marco-style menu of old, but Reid has added more populist choices like mains rib-eye of beef (£14.50), lemon sole frit (£12.75), and on my visit a special of rich steak and onion pudding. There are even - wait for it - Cumberland sausages (£11).
Before you question the presence of sausages in such elegant surroundings (is no temple safe from the gastropub juggernaut?), giving people dishes they actually want is all part of the astute, more democratic vision. There's an early-evening menu of three courses for £17.95, and lunch at £21 for three courses; more than 40 dishes on the menu; and vegetables included with every main.
"I like my cooking to be integral," says Reid. "I know serving big food can deter people from having pudding, but I don't think about that. It's about offering people value for money. Marco and Jimmy have done that for a long time. L'Escargot was probably the best value Michelin-starred restaurant in the country."
At any rate a more simple approach to cooking was one of White's philosophies, as one of Reid's starters, braised snails with brioche toast (£8.50), demonstrates. "I have done this in lots of guises before, and I used to braise them in chicken stock - until one day Marco said ‘Why do you want to make it taste of something it's not?' Reid recalls. Now he braises them in water instead with mirepoix, then cooks them in garlic butter and finishes them in a red wine jus.
The simple approach also helps them to keep costs down, though this also takes a bit of thought in the kitchen. The most expensive dish is a cutlet of veal, morel jus, fondant potato and roasted carrots (£19). "The product costs us £7, so we're not going to make a bean," says Reid. "But the butcher minces my veal trimmings, and makes it into a terrine for the menu du jour. It's about utilising everything."
To take advantage of the Bel-vedere's 120-cover capacity - in summer, when the terrace is rammed and opera from the park floods in - the new approach makes total business sense. "If someone rang up on Tuesday and wanted to book 50 for lunch on Sunday, I'd have to think long and hard about whether we accepted it. If we did it would alienate 50 of our Sunday lunch clients," Reid explains.
And those Sunday lunch clients now are? "More toddlers running around than the Belvedere has ever seen," he answers. "It upsets some of the old regulars when they can't get a table, but that's the way we're moving it."
off Abbotsbury Road
Tel: 020 7602 1238
What's on the menu - Venison terrine, Cumberland sauce, £8.50
- Créme Caroline ("sweetcorn and caviar soup"), £8.50
- Capellini of crab, lemon and parsley, £8.50/£12.95
- Boned leg of lamb boulangère, Mediterranean vegetables, £16.50
- Herb-battered fillet of cod, broken peas, potato purée, £14 Tarte tatin of pears, double cream, £6.50
- Baked cream, macerated raisins, £6.50
- Selection of cheeses, £8.50