London’s favorite Martini bar, Dukes, tucked into the lobby of a hotel by the same name, is not for someone hoping to meet a date at the bar. In fact, the arrangement of the three small adjoining rooms into private pods of armchairs keeps you from so much as glancing through most of the space, unless you commit to craning your neck for a sneaky look. There’s an air of business about the place, from the navy and taupe carpet reminiscent of New York steakhouses or East Coast country clubs, to the clientele (not totally one note but plenty of clean-shaven finance types), to the singularity of its focus: the Martini. Don’t make a date compete with that, unless you’ve already proven your affection. Instead, come here with friends, or colleagues or hell, even alone, like I did.
I was once accused of “sinking the gin in brine” when I made a round of Martinis at a dinner party. The accuser was playfully peeved; I happily gulped down mine. It may be my favorite drink, but I’m no Martini snob, simply because I don’t have an opinion on — or the taste buds for — the finer points of vermouth, the shake-versus-the-stir and so on.
Dukes was the preferred haunt of the late Ian Fleming, and the watering hole that inspired James Bond’s order: the famous Vesper Martini. The drink, named for double agent and femme fatale Vesper Lynd, requires both gin and vodka, a dash of vermouth, a lemon peel and a good shake. Needless to say, the bar seemed a little daunting. Still, never one to say no to a perfectly good drink (it’s for work!), I set out one evening to try it. To get there, I weaved through the maze-like streets of St. James, an elegant neighborhood sidled up against Hyde Park. Past The Wolseley and The Ritz, past quintessential English pubs that at half-past-five were standing room only, a steady stream of gallerists and young hedge funders funneling in.
In comparison to the near-bursting pubs, my destination seemed tame: both the hotel and the bar have the look — and the low decibel level — of an old British members club. Dukes, funnily, is a bar without barstools. Instead, quick-moving Italian bartenders in white dinner jackets lead you to a velvet armchair where your Martini comes to life tableside atop a rosewood bar cart.
After being ushered to my seat, a glass of water and a stack of reading material arrives: the most recent Elle UK and the Times. “You can’t just give a woman a woman’s magazine, that’s just a bit stupid,” the head bartender, Alessandro Palazzi, later tells me. “You have to read a woman; you have to be a host and come up with a good mix,” he continues. Next, a trio of cool silver bowls filled with plump Castelvetrano olives, mixed nuts and cheddar-dusted rice crackers arrive. All perfectly tasty, and all void of any airs of haute gastronomy — just finger food to satisfy pre-dinner peckishness.
Across from me, Palazzi is talking about yuzu-infused Martinis with a smartly dressed couple visiting from Japan. Two women in the corner in an array of black Issey Miyake pleats and nearly matching thick horn-rimmed glasses watch a young bartender peel a slice of orange rind into their drinks. “The aroma of the oil brings sweetness to your nose first,” he explains, as they clink glasses. There isn’t a table nearby with any other cocktail; clearly, you don’t come here if you don’t want a Martini.
There are more tweed jackets than you would see at a comparable New York bar like Bemelmans in the Carlyle, but the place feels surprisingly unstuffy, thanks to the gentle laughter from Palazzi and his bartenders as they pour drinks and entertain guests in equal measure. If I were someone who frequently wandered St. James spending over 20 pounds a pop on a cocktail, I think I’d even like to be a regular.
Palazzi, who came on in 2007 after long stints in Paris at The Ritz and George V, comes with a fashion-world following that adds a little glitter to the place as well. He tells me stories about waiting on Anna Wintour (“If you made a mistake, forget it, you might as well emigrate,” he laughs) and of his ongoing work on the menswear circuit at Pitti Uomo. It becomes evident that while guests might flock to Dukes for the Bond connection, what makes them return is Palazzi: he is all grace and charm, a more tangible link than the cocktail could be.
The Martini trolley has arrived and I order a Vesper. A few tweaks have been made to the original, but for those in the know (not me), the taste is nearly identical. Kina Lillet, the original vermouth, has been replaced by one by Berry Bros. & Rudd, one of London’s oldest wine shops. Potachi Vodka, No. 3 gin, a few drops of Angostura bitters and a cut of rind from an Amalfi lemon peel finishes it off. The whole thing is pretty simple, but the presentation makes it feel exceptionally indulgent. It is, of course, also delicious — and strong. Sometimes, if the drinker likes their Vesper quite dry, Palazzi swirls the vermouth around a frosted glass before dumping it on the ground. “It started as a joke. I would say, ‘It’s my job to clean the carpets anyway,’” he explains, of what has now become an enduring trick.
Dukes has been said to limit Martinis to two per person, and after one, I can see why. I duck out for dinner nearby, just to come back a few hours later for an ambitious second. Curious about the cocktail conversation I eavesdropped on earlier, I bring it up with Palazzi, who leaves for the bar and comes back with a different bottle in hand. He makes me a Martini with yuzu-infused Sacred Gin. “We have things a certain way on the menu, but you if you want something else, just ask,” he tells me. “I’ve been a bartender for 45 years. The first 25, boring. The last 20, now I do things as I like. I make a Martini with white truffle, with bottarga. We are classic here, but we have to move on, too” he says.
As I ready myself to leave, Palazzi is air-kissing a tall Texan woman in silver pants as two grey-haired gentlemen slide on their sports jackets and one reaches for a cane. A mother-daughter duo float outside ahead of me, and we share a laugh about needing a cool London evening to straighten ourselves out after those drinks. For what was once a good old boys club with one enduring claim to fame, Dukes seems to be doing just fine with change.
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