This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Alan Yau and his backers have just agreed to pay over £9 million for nothing more substantial than a set of keys to what was the ill-fated Automat restaurant on Dover Street, London.
So far, Alan Yau is known for having maximized the vital ratio between rent and sales more successfully than any other restaurateur. Twenty years ago he backed his hunch that we were about to fall in love with slurping bowls of noodles by opening the first wagamama in a basement close to the British Museum. Queues ensued.
He had the same success with Hakkasan, serving more expensive Chinese food but again from a once-neglected basement. He sold Hakkasan, yauatcha and Sake No Hana, a Japanese restaurant, most profitably to the Qatar Investment Fund but he still runs several branches of Busaba Eathai; the Italian Princi in Soho which serves 2,000 customers on a busy day; the recently opened Naamyaa café in Islington; and St Betty in his home town Hong Kong.
An extensive, £7 million redesign is planned before a new restaurant, Park Chinois, eventually opens its doors in Dover Street. Along with the keys to this come several commercial advantages. It is extensive by central London standards, comprising 12,000 sq ft over two floors across a whole block from Dover Street to Berkeley Street with the vital kitchen and ventilation in place. It comes with an alcohol licence in Westminster, a council currently reluctant to grant more licences. And, most importantly, it comes with a Mayfair address.
Mayfair is currently Mecca for those from all over the world who are keen to open in London as it attracts a constant flow of well-heeled customers. Hedge-fund managers, their lawyers and those in the fashion business who fill the breakfast tables at Cecconi's and lunch at Scott's; those requiring retail therapy who meet for lunch at Nobu, Berkeley Street; and those in the art world who seek the somewhat quieter tables of Bellamy's.
As a result Mayfair has attracted several restaurateurs who paid premiums that seemed expensive only a few years ago but now look like very sound investments. The two most conspicuous are Arkady Novikov's gamble on the large corner site on Berkeley Street where Novikov serves Asian and Italian on two floors but where a day's turnover can exceed £120,000 thanks to the nightclub in the basement. Arjun Waney has followed a similar format with the Arts Club on Dover Street in addition to his long-established, very French, La Petite Maison and, more recently, the Peruvian-inspired Coya.
Yet investment capital does not necessarily generate a good restaurant and I have experienced noticeable unevenness in the quality of the more recent Mayfair openings. The food and service were both undistinguished when I tried Banca, the strangely named Italian restaurant on North Audley Street, while our dinner at Alyn Williams' restaurant in the Westbury hotel was both ponderous and pretentious.
We returned to this hotel on learning that Eric Chavot (pictured right), who had made a name for himself at the Capital Hotel, Knightsbridge when ambitious French cooking was in vogue, had returned to open Brasserie Chavot there. But apart from enjoying the restaurant's exquisite and original tiled floor (pictured above left) and the charming and knowledgeable female sommelier, our dinner was disappointing.
It began unprofessionally with our waitress relaying that day's specials but forgetting to mention their prices, and ended equally so with a significant discrepancy between the desserts offered initially on the main menu and those then listed on the dessert card. Details such as this matter, as does the fact that the board on which the chicken liver parfait is served is too wide to fit comfortably on a table for two.
More significantly, this is brasserie food 'lite'. Choosing the freshest and most seasonal ingredients is one duty of any chef. But equally important, in my opinion, is maximizing their flavours, particularly when they are accompanied by Mayfair prices.
That extra 'oomph' is supplied in and around Mayfair by two distinct groups of chefs, all of whose restaurants benefit from the security of long leases.
There is, most conspicuously, the Anglo-French brigade: Michel Roux Jr at Le Gavroche, particularly for his weekday set lunch; fellow marathon runner Phil Howard at The Square for its wine list and, unusually, for opening on Sunday evenings; Anthony Demetre with his clearly written, appetizing menu at the recently redesigned Wild Honey; and Jason Atherton with the lively Pollen Street Social and Little Social on either side of Pollen Street.
The second group is comprised of those Japanese restaurants that opened in Mayfair three decades ago to satisfy the demands of the Japanese bankers then moving to London and the proximity of the Japanese embassy on Piccadilly. My favourites include Kiku in Half Moon Street, Miyama on Clarges Street, and the great-value Sakana-Tei on Maddox Street.
My most recent dinner in Mayfair merged the old and the new. Excellent sushi, grilled eel and soft shell crab at Sakura on Conduit Street where the worn, brown leather chairs and banquettes reflect the many customers it has served over the past 25 years was followed by dessert at the bar of Pollen Street Social. The calm of the former was in sharp contrast to the frenetic atmosphere of the latter where most of the customers were half my age. It is Mayfair's ability to generate this demand that currently makes it so very attractive, and clearly valuable, to restaurateurs.