“I wanted to open somewhere you can just hide away,” says Jon Spiteri, resplendent in pink, as we lounge by the marble fireplace in Clerkenwell’s buzziest dining room. “We chose the word ‘club’ only in the sense of it being a place where people feel that they’re looked after, rather than just a restaurant.”
Anyone who has the remotest interest in food-related accounts on Instagram will have seen that, from around mid-August, one new opening seemed to come out of nowhere. With its highly photogenic 18th century interior, bohemian feel and picture-perfect plates, it proceeded to dominate everyone’s feed.
A huge element seems to be Session Arts Club’s escapist appeal; it’s like a mini holiday somewhere far more exotic than EC1.
Entering through a low-key door – don’t expect any external signage – a rickety old lift swiftly transports you to the sanctuary of the fourth floor, a former courthouse dining room flooded with light from a series of arched windows looking out onto the rooftop. Squint and you’ll glimpse a small roof terrace, peopled by diners, leading out from the mezzanine, which has discreet booths and spectacular views over the main room. All around the space, rotating art exhibitions provide additional visual interest.
Its unique history as one of the most significant courthouses of 18th century England feels key to its spell. “This was where the judges would eat,” Jon says. “When we came here, it was just an empty space, but it did have the mezzanine. We’ve done the terraces outside and put the tables in, but otherwise just wanted it to be very utilitarian and simple.”
This is, in itself, something of an understatement, although the ‘light touch’ design approach, by architect Russell Potter, followed a meticulous restoration process by Ted and Oliver Grebelius of Sätila Studios. “They reimagined the entire building over the past six years,” says Jon. Furniture has been sourced from markets and salvage yards, creating an eclectic aesthetic, coupled with green leather banquettes reflecting the courthouse’s past.
Further nods to its long history include unfinished ‘rough luxe’ walls, original Victorian gaslights, flickering candles and white tablecloths, underlining the ethos that the venue is a collaboration between “art, design and food”, says Jon. In fact, the original idea came from a meeting with like-minded artist Jonny Gent, another of the partners behind Sessions (and pioneer of his Cabin Studio concept).
And of course, food is no afterthought, with acclaimed ex-Polpetto chef Florence Knight heading up the kitchen. I first checked out the restaurant back in August, swiftly concluding it was my favourite meal of the year to date: unique interior aside, the staff were friendly and relaxed, and dishes artful yet simple.
Outstanding plates over my two visits have included the much-lauded cured sea bream, fig leaf and vividly green sorrel sauce (pictured above); molten crab croquettes, a fiver a pop; expertly pin-boned mackerel with summery sweet Datterini tomatoes; and a delicate eel and potato tart with creme fraiche and roe (see below).
Also recommended? The petit aioli, its garlicky splendour offset by peppery French radish, anchovy and orange-yolked boiled eggs; while the playful squid rings with tomato and calamarata seems to sum up the spirit of the venture. Another highlight last week was an opaque fillet of butter-soft hake in a smooth parsley sauce, ratte potato peeping out beneath.
Spiteri’s backstory includes being co-founder of the French House Dining Room (with Margot and Fergus Henderson) and the seminal EC1 restaurant St John, a clue as to why his latest venture is such an apparently effortless hit.
Born to Tunisian parents in Tunbridge Wells, local readers might also be interested to know that he has lived in the Kentish Town/ Tufnell Park area for twenty years. I cornered him for a chat on the manor – just before peak service, of course.
Finally: what is the secret of the huge popularity of Sessions? Recent broadsheet rave reviews mean an evening table is almost impossible to secure for at least a month.
“I have a great team; it’s not me at all running it. What we’re seeing is customers who haven’t been to restaurants for a year and a half. They really appreciate being somewhere special and intimate and being looked after. And so we’re getting the best customers in the world really in that way. For so long everyone has been restricted and they’re so happy to be out.”
While currently being open only Wednesdays to Fridays adds to its desirability, the plan is for Tuesdays and Saturdays very soon. “That means that on Sundays and Mondays everyone’s off at the same time,” says Jon. “It would be great to open every day, but in some ways why not treat this differently?”
It’s this fresh approach that – coupled, of course, with the food – has perhaps sealed its success. Not to mention the wow factor that everyone experiences walking into that dining room, suggesting an alchemy that’s somehow way more than the sum of its many delightful parts.
Sessions Arts Club, The Old Sessions House, 24 Clerkenwell Green, Farringdon, EC1R 0NA. Open Wed-Fridays, lunch and dinner. Follow @sessionsartsclub, www.sessionsartsclub.com
Main portrait: Stephen Emms