How the Dover became the hottest table in town

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

A current runs through Martin Kuczmarski’s eyes as he drinks from his martini. Vodka, vermouth spritz, orange twist. He is looking around at his restaurant, the Dover, named after the Mayfair street it hides on. “Sophia Loren in the Seventies, that was the inspiration,” he grins. “Well, Sophia Loren goes to Brooklyn, eats a bowl of spaghetti meatballs, and Al Pacino is her boyfriend. That’s what I told the designers.”

So what does Seventies Sophia Loren eating meatballs with Al Pacino look like? Well, as befits the pair, it’s beautiful, mysterious, beguiling. It’s a velvet curtain for an entrance and wood panelling everywhere. It’s low light; chandeliers and candles, shelves with books and records on them. And in the Dover, it looks like success: the restaurant, which opens only for supper — “when I conceived the restaurant, I only conceived it for the night,” says Kuczmarski — is arguably London’s hottest table in town. “I wake up to many messages asking for a table,” he blushes.  Have there been celebrities? A-listers, he says, but no names. Discretion matters at the Dover.

It’s impressive, I say, for somewhere with next to no social media (Instagram shows only its logo), where the only reservations are taken over the phone, and which launched with no launch party, opened with no soft opening. There was scarcely any PR tomfoolery. And it’s not like the food, New York “red sauce” Italian, is breaking much culinary ground. Has this all been a happy accident?

Kuczmarski, 50, laughs softly and shakes his head. Nothing about the Dover is accidental. The launch party was never going to happen, for a start. “You see all these influencers taking photos of themselves. I said, ‘What’s wrong with these people?’ My customers should be my influencers. I want them to talk about it, not someone we pay. That’s fake, I want real.”As he tells it, this is all the result of a lifetime’s work. “I’m traditionally trained,” he says. “When I was a teenager, my mates went out to have fun. I was in five-star hotels ironing tablecloths.”

Martin Kuczmarski (Press handout)
Martin Kuczmarski (Press handout)

What followed could, in hindsight, either be considered driven or obsessive: Kuczmarski left Italy in search of finding the world’s very best hospitality. “I told my mother, ‘one day I will work in the Ritz in Paris’. I applied, I was refused. So I sent 10 CVs and 10 letters to 10 different people in the hotel.” Somehow, it worked. “I started crying when I got the job.”

From there came stints with Alain Ducasse, the Pourcel brothers, and “under Lord [Charles] Forte at the Hyde Park Hotel, when Marco Pierre White was there”. It’s these years, he says, that have fuelled the Dover as much as the obvious career highlight, namely 16 years with the Soho House group, many as COO. When he joined, there were four houses and “when I left in 2022, we had 60. It was an amazing journey.”Was it a tough split? No, because Nick Jones stepped down as CEO, Kuczmarski explains. “I said to him, ‘We did this for 16 years together, if you don’t want to do it, I don’t want to do it.’” As simple as that? “I was taking 150 flights a year and I thought, ‘This is not what I signed up for’. I love Soho House, but I was not in love. Like with a partner, when you don’t have goosebumps anymore.”

The prawn cocktail (Press handout)
The prawn cocktail (Press handout)

He and Jones are still close, he says, catching up most weeks over a bottle of Tignanello, but it’s a different world going it alone. “You stand in front of the mirror and go ‘F***! What if this is stupid, what if it doesn’t work?’

“After 32 years in hospitality, this was my challenge. I wanted to combine all of what I’d done before and do it again by myself.” But was he scared? “God, I haven’t slept. It’s incredibly daunting and difficult.”Combining those decades of experience meant comparing what once was with what exists now. “I was determined to bring back old school hospitality. We need to be modern, but some things never change.” Like what? “Good service. I don’t want anyone telling me when I sit down that my table is needed back by 10pm. I haven’t even ordered anything yet, f*** off!”

As Kuczmarski tells it, it’s been experiences like that — where he’s looked around and been left wanting — that made the Dover happen. “I wanted proper hospitality. In too many places, it’s just a business. But it should be a passion project. People think too much about turning tables, upselling, profit.”

I don’t want anyone telling me when I sit down that my table is needed back by 10pm. I haven’t even ordered anything yet, f*** off!

His passion is obvious in the attention to detail at the Dover. It’s there in everything from the reception desk — “We only have a reservations book, because I didn’t want that ‘Computer says no’ thing. To me, reception is ‘Hello’ and ‘Yes’, because they only have those two things to say” — to the china (“the same as Claridge’s used to use”) to the napkins, which “shine, because we add eight per cent silk to them.” Eight per cent, is he sure? Of course. “My job is just to make sure every small detail is taken care of.

“If you look at other restaurants, they look and feel the same because they use the same designers. I found mine by fluke in a studio in Milan. I said to this young couple who owned it, have you ever designed a bar before? A restaurant? They said no. I said, ‘Yes!’”

Kuczmarski’s obsessive streak, it turns out, is everywhere: the floor, which is black and white tiled, draws on his love of the Ritz in Paris, while the wood-panelling “is kind of art deco, a little Orient Express”. He took the staff uniforms “from the design of a Sixties Savile Row jacket I’d found, but made using that thicker material worn in New York’s meat-packing district”.

He’s thrown out the idea of no tablecloths — here there are not one but two on each table — and the lighting was practically an infatuation. “I sat at every single table, in every single seat, to get it right. Every light bulb is specific; they all give a different glow to the skin. We all like to look good. And I wanted to bring the candle back. What happened to the candle?”

Kuczmarski, centre, with chef Valentino Pepe and general manager Tobias Smithson (Press handout)
Kuczmarski, centre, with chef Valentino Pepe and general manager Tobias Smithson (Press handout)

Music was another thing that took a while to get right, coming strictly from his and his wife’s vinyl collection of funk, disco and soul. “Vinyl has depth to it, I didn’t want anything superficial. So what if it’s old with a crack in it? It adds to the atmosphere. The sound system is part of the training. To be honest, we spend as much time on the atmosphere as on the meatballs.” Even the tables, he explains, are slightly lower than in the average restaurant, “because it makes you feel more comfortable; it’s not as stiff as a formal dining room. I want the place to be elegant but not pretentious.”

This, in fact, is the crux of things. Kuczmarski has created a restaurant he wants to go to — where the staff and the vibe is everything. Heading up service is Tobias Smithson, charm incarnate, who  Kuczmarski prised from Bacchanalia.

“In the old days, restaurants were an emotional event. We’d go in to feel good, with the food, the drink, with the service. I want to go somewhere where we can talk properly, but I want to hear the clink of glasses, the cutlery banging the table.”

The food, it seems, is the only thing to have escaped endless scrutiny. It feels on trend, offering Italian by way of New York cooking. There’s parmigiana, Italian sausage pie, a burger and fries (“the fries are presented in this Sixties McDonald’s box, a design that was never released”), and the bestseller, beef arrosto with mash, where thin slices of pink roast beef circle a scoop of buttery mash.“The menu, perhaps there’s nothing special, but it’s the classics. It’s comfort food. If I were to die tomorrow, what would I want for my last meal…?”

Prices aren’t high for the postcode, with cocktails from £15, starters from £10 and plenty of mains in the mid-£20s. It’s a lot, but rather less than the neighbours. “I think Mayfair is stupid now. You don’t have to pass on every little cost to the customer! It’s a crime!”

And there, it seems, is what the Dover’s recent triumphs come down to. It’s in the customer — Kuczmarski’s thinking about them first, himself second. “Jeremy King wrote me a beautiful letter saying, ‘Finally! Proper restaurateuring is back!’

“Hospitality is simple — just make the customer happy, and everything else will work. You do things right, the money will be there.” It sounds an awful lot like the restaurateur’s version of ‘If you build it, they will come.’ Which, in the Dover’s case, is exactly what’s happening.33 Dover Street, W1S 4NF,