This article was also published in the Financial Times.
At 3.15 pm an elegant, silver-haired woman was walking past the bar of Jason Atherton's recently opened Pollen Street Social in Mayfair with her husband firmly in tow.
She spotted Atherton talking to his manager, came over, kissed him, congratulated him on the lunch they had just enjoyed and added, 'It's good to have you back, Jason.'
The return of customers like these is one of the principal reasons Atherton, his Filipina wife, Irha, and Mavis Oei, a family friend, have invested £3 million, alongside their bank, in converting what was formerly a Pitcher & Piano bar into what they all hope will be his new, professional home for many years to come.
Once Atherton, 39, had finally decided to go on his own, having cooked for others for the past 20 years in a career that began alongside his sister in the kitchen of his mother's guesthouse in Skegness, Lincolnshire, he knew he had to stay in Mayfair. His years as head chef at Gordon Ramsay's Maze had generated a following he fully appreciated he could not afford to squander.
'Mayfair is a very particular village. There are lots of people who live, work, shop, and go out for an early evening drink around here so although I looked at other parts of the city, I knew that it would be much easier to get started here than anywhere else', he explained. And so it may prove, despite two major mistakes, one of which Atherton readily confesses to.
As a talented chef with a tendency, in my opinion, to put one more ingredient on each dish than is strictly necessary, Atherton sensibly recognised that a more casual approach was vital if he was to succeed. So PSS, as he continually refers to it, is divided into a 60-seater restaurant, a novel dessert bar with good views of the kitchen, and a 40-seater tapas bar. The word 'social' Atherton concocted as the glue to bind all this together, another reference to his northern roots.
But for the year PSS was in the planning and construction, Atherton, like so many others in his situation, grew increasingly convinced of the validity of everything that he was planning and increasingly unaware that he was not doing enough to get his message across. It has obviously been a painful period. When I asked him about it, he constantly referred to 'so many sleepless nights' and that he 'could never rest until his partners and the bank have been repaid'.
My first of four visits also immediately revealed another strategic mistake, the lack of a restaurateur's input. Atherton has been allowed to put so many creative ideas into PSS but no one has been there to question him, to insist that several may be beneficial but could undoubtedly wait to be paid for out of the first year's profits. Or that the key to securing your customers' return business is to continually innovate and expand rather than to open with every idea, some half-baked at best, on display.
There is, for example, no need to have opened with the restaurant staff dressed by Nick Hart from nearby Savile Row. The gastronomic quotations expensively etched on to the glass panels (including those in the lavatory!) seem an unnecessary luxury. As do the mail boxes at reception that dispense a present to those departing from each table. This money would have been much better saved or put towards sauce spoons missing from our first lunch or the issue his architects have most conspicuously ignored, that of a low ceiling leading to harsh acoustics.
But the most obvious manifestation of how Atherton came to confuse his customers and staff when he first opened - and the reason for my four test meals, albeit each one enjoyed more than the last - is that he chose to open with a menu that tried to include almost every single trick of his trade. He sensibly abandoned this within the first week.
The initial four pages included a set three-course menu; over 20 dishes that customers could turn into their own tasting menu; then a list of a la carte first and main courses with the desserts on a separate menu. 'I just assumed everyone would get it', Atherton confessed, 'but the negative feedback was immediate. The waiting staff reported that customers were asking, 'can you please help us navigate this menu?' and I knew I'd got it dead wrong. I never wanted my restaurant to be somewhere where the waiters took any length of time to interrupt the meal to explain what was on the plate. But I had inadvertently created confusion before they had even started.'
When Atherton sat down with his staff to explain the new, much simpler menu, there was, he told me, a unanimous reaction. 'Thank heavens', they all said, although I imagine that the exact phraseology was somewhat blunter. There has certainly been a palpable difference in the mood of the waiting staff since.
It has also resulted in more confident cooking now that the brigade has to prepare far fewer dishes. My last meal with a young, aspiring cook involved very enthusiastic comments as we passed backwards and forwards barbecued mackerel with cucumber chutney; an escabeche of quail with chicken-liver cream; cod with lemon peel and English asparagus; and halibut with sprouting broccoli, mussel stock and an intense Catalan paella served in a shining copper pan. We then decamped to the dessert bar for a vanilla cheesecake with rhubarb and ginger and another copper pan this time filled with warm rice pudding. Atherton's French sommelier has cleverly sourced their own superior white and red from the Loire, both served by the glass.
'PSS' is another example of a classically trained chef moving into more relaxed surroundings - Dos Pallilos in Barcelona, Passage 53 in Paris, and Relae, Copenhagen, are others. This one, I feel, will owe its eventual success to a combination of talent and northern grit.
Pollen Street Social