American steakhouse and general institution Palm launched its first site outside the USA in London last month. Will it prove an equal hit on these shores? Tom Vaughan reports
There are inevitably going to be some out there who wish ill on the new branch of US steakhouse Palm: an expensive surf'n'turf restaurant opening in a recession, with steaks and lobster imported from across the Atlantic, that also happens to be packed full every night. With Americans.
To boot, the interior couldn't be more Americanised. Copies of New Yorker-style 1930s newspaper cartoons adorn the walls alongside acrylic headshots of 21st century A-listers Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Paul McCartney and Coldplay's Chris Martin. Although how likely the famously vegetarian Martin and McCartney are to visit the predominantly meat-based London site is open to question.
The US vibe extends through to the menu, where salads come with either blue cheese or ranch dressing and lobsters are proudly touted as Nova Scotia imports, despite the relative proximity to native British lobster fisheries.
But despite the obvious scope for cynicism, the 27-strong Palm chain has built up the kind of international brand loyalty that some restaurateurs would kill for. "Over the last 20 years lots of customers have told Wally [Ganzi, co-chairman and co-owner] that they come to London for business," explains director of European operations Michelle McGuire. "And we always listen to our customers."
The 120-seat London Palm - the first site outside the USA - is the start of what is a planned move into Europe for the 83-year-old chain, started in New York in 1926 by two first-generation Italian immigrants. The name was a misunderstanding by the licensing office, with Parma, the two founders' home town, being the intended name. The company has taken two years to find the perfect London location, which it has in the former Drones site on Pont Street, near Sloane Square.
And despite the overbearing US feel, it has shown a willingness to adapt to its new surroundings. Gone are the heritage Italian dishes of the US sites, fuelled by the consideration that, in McGuire's words, "there are enough good Italians in London". Instead, British lamb (two 180g chops, £17), beef (bone-out 400g rib-eye, £28) and salmon join the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) cuts of New York sirloin and the Nova Scotia salmon. Service, too, says McGuire, has been stepped down a notch in line with UK customers, and waiting staff aren't quite as conversational as they would be in US branches.
There is, however, a niggling feeling that these British adjustments either needed better planning or that they only go so far to please the American audience. Why else fly in Canadian lobsters? Why would white, not green, asparagus be the choice for the British seasonal vegetable side (£7)?
Another issue that some have drawn attention to is the price. It's hard to shy away from. At the top end of the menu there is a USDA prime 400g sirloin steak for £49 or a 2lb steamed Nova Scotia lobster for £40, both of which prices exclude sides. Starters all sit around the £10 mark, and while Dover sole from the special fish section may boast a fairly normal London price of £19, this excludes any sides, with green beans, mashed potatoes and so on all costing upwards of £7 each.
The USDA steak, however, is as excellent as the price suggests, having been seared on a phenomenally hot broiler, the only other of which in London is in Maze Grill. However, French fries (£7) cooked with the skin on are probably an acquired taste.
It is no surprise to find that the desserts go the American route. The house signature dish of New York cheesecake is probably the best-value dish on the menu, at £6, although key lime pie (£6), also a signature dessert, is maybe a shade to sweet.
Whatever the faults, Palm is serving up crowd-pleasing food, albeit at a price. And it will always be home to the demographic it is geared to: expense card-wielding businessmen and affluent neighbours who'd think nothing of spending £80 on a steak meal.
1 Pont Street, Belgravia, London SW1X 9EJ.
Tel: 020 7201 0710www.thepalm.com
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- USDA filet mignon (280g), £39
- USDA New York sirloin steak (280g), £35
- Broiled crab cakes with mango salsa, £22
- Crème brûlée, £6
- Chocolate fondant, £6
- Mixed berries, £6