Robin Gill’s latest venture takes its cues from the bars of Manhattan during the 1950s, which is fitting given its location in London’s Embassy Gardens, opposite the new American Embassy. The reason for this is in the name, with Darby’s so-called in honour of Gill’s jazz musician father Earl ‘Darby’ Gill, with the restaurant celebrating his time spent touring the US and frequenting New York’s watering holes (he had originally intended to call it ‘Earth, Grain and Fire’ but says he heard his father on his shoulder going, ‘what’s that all about?’). Darby’s sign is a trumpet, in reference to his father’s instrument of choice.
Earl, who passed away in 2014, would no doubt have approved: Darby’s is a welcoming space with an open kitchen and a central marble-topped bar that bisects the spacious room to create a bar area to the front of the building, complete with outside terrace, and a dining area to the rear. It’s exactly the kind of space you can see yourself popping in for a pint of Guinness and moving round for some oysters or a lobster roll.
The location, however, is more of a conundrum. Gill, who has successfully built a collection of neighbourhood restaurants in Clapham (namely The Dairy and Sorella), has had less luck when moving further afield; his Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green lasting only a few years. With Embassy Gardens he’s once again opted for a less than central location in that there’s not much else around save some auto repair garages (on the day of the opening party, staff were on hand to direct people who may have otherwise got lost on the way from Vauxhall station). Footfall is the friend of many a restaurant, but with 120 covers inside and 30 outdoors, Darby’s needs it more than others.
The reason for Gill taking on the site can be traced to a ham sandwich. Four years ago Gill posted a picture on Instagram from the Dairy’s then deli [now Counter Culture] of said sandwich, which was seen by someone who shared it with a friend at property developer Ballymore, which is involved with Embassy Gardens. They liked what they saw and signed Gill up.
At Darby’s Gill says he’s taking what the teams do at The Dairy and Sorella to an extreme level. The restaurants have always made their own bread, but at Darby’s there is a bespoke bakery with three full-time bakers, as well as a meat-ageing room. The kitchen is headed up by Dean Parker, with whom Gill opened The Dairy in 2013 and Sorella in 2018, with Emma Underwood having joined the team from Mayfair restaurant Stem to lead front of house.
At 5,000sq ft, Darby’s is Gill’s biggest project to date, not just in size but in the breadth of its operation. Open from breakfast through dinner – serving from 8am Monday to Friday and an hour later on weekends – the menu is extensive. Early morning dishes include the Darby’s ‘full Irish’; waffles with maple syrup; and croissants and pastries made in-house, while the lunch and dinner menu kicks off with snacks such as lobster brioche roll; truffle arancini; and pork and fennel salumi. Starters include a beef tartare mixed with bone marrow and chestnut mushrooms; pappardelle veal ragu; and Jersey milk ricotta, almond and flat white peach.
Mains all come from the grill – although starters such as the pasta are available in mains sizes – with a short selection of turbot, monkfish, various cuts of Dexter beef and Blackface lamb. Specials on our visit included a whole 1kg turbot and a 1kg Highland beef steak, both to share. Darby’s piece de resistance is its central oyster bar, with two different oysters on at present - Black Water Wild and Dooncastle – the former also available cooked with seaweed butter.
Thus Gill has a lot on his plate, but there are extra helpings round the corner. The building in which Darby’s is housed is home to a sky pool opening this summer, with a lift in the kitchen that goes directly up to 10th-floor pool. Gill is building a barbecue outside up there and will do a small raw shellfish bar with drinks like vermouth, aperol spritz and champagne.
And then there’s The Yard restaurant at the Great Scotland Yard hotel in London, which opens in late summer and which is also being overseen by Gill (with Alex Harper, formerly of The Harwood Arms, as executive chef). It’s impressive stuff, although Gill is phlegmatic about it all. “I’ve been very fortuitous with the opportunities I’ve had,” he says. But then, unlike his father, he’s never been one to blow his own trumpet.
On the menu
Darby’s breakfast (£14)
Exmoor caviar, Secret Smokehouse salmon, brown butter waffle and cultured cream (£19.50)
Richie’s beef fillet tartare, bone marrow and chestnut mushrooms (£12.50)
Pappardelle veal ragu (£13)
‘The Britannia V’ turbot - 200g (£30)
Burnt honey cake & reduced milk ice cream (£6)
3 Viaduct Gardens, London
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the June issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here.