Over the last three decades Browns has become a familiar name for those looking for an authentic brasserie experience. In 1973 the very first Browns opened its doors and it has been a popular chain ever since.
We visited Browns Covent Garden and it had anything but the feel of a chain restaurant. There were none of those obvious corporate trappings that so litter other establishments. This had the air of a real Parisian brasserie, and the nature of the building did nothing to detract from that classic ambiance. Browns Covent Garden is housed in the former Westminster Law Courts, built in 1908. It is in fact a Grade II listed building. The function rooms are said to boast the original judge’s bench. The courts were tastefully converted to a Browns Restaurant in 1996 and it now seats 320 on the ground floor. The restaurant didn’t, however, seem like an aircraft hangar. There were several raised areas and pillars and palms to give privacy and a more intimate feel.
The bar is magnificent and even that wafts one back to gay Paree during La Belle Epoch. Silver ice buckets, dark wood, sweeping spiral staircases (one up and another down) dark leather and antique mirrors all add to the impression. Even the waiters wear those distinctive long aprons so beloved of continental front-of-house staff. The walls are muted taupe bathed in light from original sash windows giving views over the bustle of a busy London street.
We were seated on a corner banquette by the aforementioned windows and we enjoyed an elevated vantage point. Our fellow diners were tourists, and office workers who had Browns as their regular Friday lunchtime retreat. It’s difficult to find a solid central London restaurant that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg and isn’t full to bursting. Browns is big enough to be comfortable even when moderately full, but still with relatively speedy service.
I ordered a Mai Tai from the drinks menu, which runs to a stunning 20 pages or so of very respectable wines at reasonable prices. There is a good selection of chilled continental beers and even ciders, so something for every taste and occasion. The waiter was knowledgeable and was able to make good suggestions for food and wine pairings.
The menu is a fascinating and eclectic mix. From Burgers (I got a look at them and they were a cut above anything from a fast food chain, and with enough garnishes to sink a battleship) to Guinea Fowl as well as pies and more. A chalk-board with the day’s specials offered an array of equally stylish dishes.
My starter was a Goat’s Cheese and Red Onion Tart. The cheese was melting and tangy, contrasted by the sweetness of the caramelised onions. The roasted red pepper and rocket salad was a substantial garnish. The tart was piping hot with delicate and crumbly crust.
My guest ordered Chicken and Duck Liver Parfait. This was served with an apple and pear chutney and toasted rye bread and was amazingly good value for money. The paté was light and almost mousse-like and moreish. The fruit chutney was a well chosen accompaniment. Paté is a standard brasserie or bistro item and it’s often dry and uninspiring. This one, however, was delicious and thoughtfully presented.
My companion is a man often drawn to fish. He was tempted by several piscatorial dishes from both the main menu and the chalk-board. He dithered over the traditional fish and chips but settled on Monkfish wrapped in Prosciutto. This had its side dishes of buttered new potatoes as well as the colourful and flavourful Sweet Pepper Confit. Monkfish has a meaty flesh but it’s so often overcooked and bland. This dish was succulent and made more interesting by the salty spike of the bacon.
I chose Slow Cooked Pork Belly from the chalk-board as my main course. This was the best I had eaten in a long time. The meat was rich and tender with a soft rind, perfumed with spices, aromatic and adding so much to the dish. It was served atop a mound of real mash with a pool of proper gravy. This was comfort food of the highest order. Nothing fancy but just right in every regard. This should be added to the regular menu.
Desserts at Browns are listed as Puddings and I found that appropriate for this style of restaurant in its quintessentially British location. A good roll-call of classics including Sticky Toffee Pudding and Brownies. I ordered the Bread and Butter Pudding. Here it’s made with brioche, making for a light and rich dessert served in a wedge. The vanilla ice cream sported those black specks to confirm that it had truly been on nodding terms with a real vanilla bean.
My guest chose the cheese board. This was indeed a board groaning under the weight of three wedges of cheese (Brie, Danish Blue and Cheddar) as well as enough grapes to grace any posh sideboard, and a pile of crackers. This cried out for a nice glass of port or at least a glass of robust red.
Browns Covent Garden was a surprise. OK, so it’s part of a chain but it has the class of an authentic brasserie. The menu offers a broad spectrum of dishes and those that we ordered were well executed. The wine list was a revelation. If this particular branch is typical of the whole fleet then they deserve to remain a success. Its location and its history serve to make this a must-visit eatery for tourists as well as locals in the know.
Open: 9am (10am Weekends)
(11.30pm Thursday – Saturday. 10.30pm Sunday)
Full Menu from: 12noon
Breakfast/Brunch until: 12noon (4pm weekends)
Afternoon Tea: 2pm to 5pm
Bar until: 11pm
(12 midnight Thursday – Saturday; 10.30pm Sunday)
Browns Bar & Brasserie Covent Garden
82-84 St Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden, London
Telephone: 020 7497 5050
Visit Browns Covent Garden here
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018