Thirty years ago, young, confident and, in retrospect, remarkably naïve, I opened my restaurant, L’Escargot in Soho, London, which ill-health forced me to sell at the end of the 1980s.
Although I obviously sought to emulate the best restaurants of the time, and, contrary to what many people currently believe, good restaurants in London did not suddenly materialise with television chefs, my overriding goal was to introduce friendly service and a sense of fun into what was then a predominantly formal affair. Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, now overseeing The Wolseley, focused on the same principles when they opened Le Caprice in the same year and Danny Meyer set the same wheels in motion in New York in 1985 when he opened Union Square Café.
In my worst nightmare, I find myself a restaurateur again, except this time in today’s far more competitive market and I wonder how I would survive.
Below I have listed 10 restaurants that have recently been opened by restaurateurs of the age I was then and who, I believe, are offering the essential combination of good food, wine, service and flair. How would L’Escargot have fared against today’s competition, I wonder?
Fortunately, I took my mother’s suggestion and shortened the restaurant’s original name from L’Escargot Bienvenu to L’Escargot. Today, names need to be short, snappy and easily memorable, regardless of their language.
And, above all, it seems that they must not include the word restaurant. This signifies expense, formality, and the requirement to spend a considerable amount of time, all ingredients that today customers either don’t want or cannot afford. The owners of Hawksmoor pride themselves on being principally a steak restaurant, those behind Zucca in Bermondsey Street on running an extremely good-value Italian restaurant – but neither mention the R word.
London’s West End still thrives, a bubble, as numerous restaurant agents refer to it, even within the capital. This is because it still appeals to so many and its theatres and cinemas remain so popular, generating that crucial early-evening and after-show business. But Soho still remains quiet on a Sunday, which would happily mean a day off for the owner and his family, even though, as for those at Caravan, this is now the most popular day, often with a wait of two hours for a table.
L’Escargot could seat 180 over three floors and this is where I believe I would really have struggled today. All of these restaurants are much smaller, a maximum of 70–80, invariably on one floor at ground level, and they rely on turning tables to prosper. Spuntino, an American diner on Rupert Street, Soho, squeezed between sex shops and dessert counters, seats 26 round one counter but on a busy day, and an even busier night, this will serve over 260.
I had a policy of reservations on the two upper floors of the restaurant and a no-booking policy on the ground floor, which was a less expensive, more informal brasserie. I believe I would have struggled to keep this differentiation.
Today, the move is definitely towards not taking reservations and customers seem much more amenable to this practice. At Vinoteca the successful policy that has led to the opening of the second branch in Seymour Place, near Marble Arch, involves taking bookings at lunch but not at dinner, when the opportunity to have a glass of wine while they wait will, its owners hope, also encourages customers to buy from theVinoteca wine shop.
Here is possibly the biggest change. Whereas most of my customers were aged 35-60, most of the customers who are keeping all these restaurants busy and buzzing are between 25 and 40. As a result, I think that my ground floor would have been even busier but the restaurant, which was far more expensive to operate, would have been quieter.
This is because of a shift in the symbiosis. The customers today have come to rely on these restaurants not just as a place to eat but as a place to be, somewhere far more fun and enjoyable to spend time in than rather cramped rented accommodation. Waiting in a queue at Dishoom, a fun, modern Indian on St Martin’s Lane, certainly brings a smile to your face, as do the squirrel lampshades on the walls of The Riding House Café. These places have become ‘scenes’ as much as places to eat and drink.
FOOD AND WINE
Having introduced numerous British producers and winemakers from the USA, I am confident that I could have kept abreast of all that has been evolving over the intervening years. But I would have expected that my chef Martin Lam and I (pictured here at L'Escargot) would have introduced more spices and Asian influences onto the menu as well as wines from Austria, Greece, New Zealand and Italy.
WHAT I WAS DEFINITELY MISSING
I know now that I would not have prospered unless I had introduced at least two good cocktail barmen on to my team and coffee baristas of the same quality. I would still be buying my coffee from the highly atmospheric Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton Street.
But where I would have had to expand my own role is in the education of my staff. I would have wanted to send chefs on brief stages to other kitchens; to enroll my waiting staff on the Wine and Spirit Education Trust courses; and to encourage my sommeliers to go off on trips with the wine merchants to visit the winemakers and taste in their cellars.
Because perhaps the biggest change in restaurants is how much information they impart and how eager so many customers are to learn. Invariably, I learn something about wine over dinner at Brawn or Terroirs, something about Venice after a few cichetti at da Polpo. Information that is not included on the bill.
Riding House Café