As recently as 15 years ago or prior to 2005, Londoners wouldn’t consider a spot south of the river as a place for destination dining. Yet, Sir Terence Conran chose a former 19th century tea warehouse alongside Tower Bridge as the site for his classic French restaurant, Le Pont de la Tour. For the past 30 years, it has defied it’s location, attracting city types and affluent tourists who come for the up-close views of the bridge, spectacularly lit at night, the 39-page wine list, and impeccable, old-fashioned attention to service.
Now owned by London restaurant group D&D, Le Pont de la Tour underwent a makeover last year. The interiors, appropriately, are designed with a subtle resemblance to the SS Normandie, among the great ocean liners of the 1930s.
Entering through the bar and grill, brass lamps throw off dim moody lighting. The atmosphere is relaxed, and appears populated by an after-work crowd as well as locals who inhabit the now-trendy dockside apartment buildings. The dining room is a step back in time to a more formal dining experience, which is to be embraced amidst the ubiquitous quest for casual street food served with a ‘buzzy vibe’ in the latest pop-up. Here, there is a reason to be dressed properly, to don more than a t-shirt, jeans and Converse. It’s a classy joint, where everyone seems to pay attention to the unspoken rules of the days of yore, which includes the right attire, stopping short of requiring a jacket for men.
Old school magic
If all this is starting to sound a bit stuffy; be assured it’s not. Rather, it’s refreshing to be surrounded by a bit of the old school magic of a well-run restaurant where the service leads the food, rather than the other way around.
The bartender has a deft hand, and delivers signature cocktails in cut crystal (what else?) that leave an indelible impression. One, a blend of cucumber and lime, is as clean and crisp as it sounds, resisting the usual sweetness found in many drinks. Another comes with a bit of tableside theatre as it’s set alight; think flambé, leaving a gin cocktail that’s gently smoked and layered with complex flavours.
The award-winning wine cellar at the back of the dining room occupies an entire wall and two pages of wines available by the glass bears evidence of the commitment to exposing diners to a wide range of sips. I particularly enjoyed a 2015 Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, chosen by a charming sommelier whose knowledge isn’t limited to grapes.
Proper night out
Seared foie gras with caramelized plum and puffed wild rice is tender and well seasoned. And, it befits the autumn temperatures as well as the venison, perfectly paired with slow-baked beetroot and parsnip puree. The menu is varied, with plenty of meat dishes, but also enough fish and vegetables, like sea bream with confit of fennel to make it an equitable offering for both carnivores and vegetarians. An heirloom tomato with onions is one of the better sides. Dessert can only be the blackberry soufflé. We were right to trust the waiter in guiding us to his favourite which was worth the wait. Heightened by vanilla ice cream melting down the middle, it’s no wonder the soufflé tops the dessert menu.
An evening here will feel like a proper night out – a date, a special occasion, or like heading back to a place where the staff remember preferences and dislikes. Le Pont de la Tour may not be exotic, but it will deliver great service in a style that’s becoming more and more precious as it is rare.