Eating out in SW London
On the two occasions I have sat at the corner of Whitton Road in Twickenham, Middlesex, close to the home of English rugby and not that far from Heathrow airport, the food has been memorable; a hearty fricassee of rabbit; a proper crème brûlée whose top had to be cracked open; plump scallops with a celeriac purée and a stunning woodcock cooked as precisely as the menu described, roast on toast. Underneath the restaurant there was an equally impressive cellar with 900 different wines.
The view from the front window was less glamorous. A set of traffic lights right outside meant that we could only see out as far as the backed up cars and this led in turn to those on the top of any double decker bus having a great view of what we were enjoying. But we did not let that interfere with our pleasure.
These two meals, at Ma Cuisine and its elder brother McClements, highlight yet another aspect in which many British towns and cities are resembling their counterparts in France, Italy and Spain: while the very best restaurants still remain glued to the city centre the quality of those on the periphery, in the suburbs, is increasing year by year.
Several of my favourite restaurants in this geographical category are listed at the end but as I selflessly researched this topic one conclusion became almost immediately obvious: that the success of these restaurants is above all due to the personality, passion, drive and style of their owners.
This factor is reflected not so much in their personal foibles or choices but because these restaurants, rather than their counterparts in the West End who can benefit from the fickle but often lucrative tourist trade, have to know precisely what their regular, local, clientele are looking for. And deliver it.
The biggest operating advantage that suburban restaurants hold is that their rent, local taxes and the inevitable premium to get into the space are considerably lower than for the same space in the centre of town. But that, according to Nigel Platts-Martin, is the extent of their commercial advantage.
Platts-Martin runs not just The Square in highly expensive, chic Mayfair but also Chez Bruce in leafy Wandsworth, south London, La Trompette in Chiswick and The Glasshouse in Kew. But after he had explained this initial commercial advantage to me he went very quiet.
"Well, that's all I can think of really. Apart from the rent a restaurateur anywhere seems to face the same operating costs. It is no less expensive to hire a good sous-chef or pastry chef in south London than it is in central London and we all face the same obligations from the statutory health and safety bodies. And although it is often very pleasant to be out of the hustle and bustle of the West End it is often much harder to attract good staff to the suburbs because of the lack of public transport especially after midnight."
And the lunch trade, increasingly scarce everywhere due to time and cost pressures, is inevitably less in what is by definition a more residential area although to date this has been offset by the suburban restaurant's main advantage, a lack of strong competition. Platts-Martin did remark, however, that he was noticing more openings outside the West End.
It is the evening trade which is make or break for the suburban restaurateur although he does not have the luxury of his West End counterpart of juggling demand by organising two seatings except at the weekend. "Not surprisingly, most people want to go home, change and see their children before they come to us and set off what we refer to as the 8.30 pm rush."
Having explained all the negatives, Platts-Martin turned to just what makes a suburban restaurant not just successful but also indispensable for those who live close by. "Far, far more than in the West End you have to identify the market so, so clearly and then supply your customers with precisely what they are looking for. And because the number of customers are less you have to ensure that you can maintain a good average spend. To get the return I am looking for that means selecting those areas where in return for the right quality of food and wine customers will happily and regularly pay 50-60 a head."
The business model for a successful suburban restaurant is therefore relatively simple. A great location in an affluent area where you can offer a pretty distinctive menu invariably at a set price to ensure the necessary spend coupled with a very good wine cellar and an equally well trained staff.
Or, if you don't fancy doing all this hard work and then maintaining these high standards at least six days a week, there is another option. Cherish your local, neighbourhood restaurateur.
Ma Cuisine, 020-8607 9849
McClements, 020-8744 9610
Redmond's, East Sheen, 020-8878 1922
The Burnt Chair, Richmond Green, 020-8940 9488
La Trompette, 020-8747 1836
Chez Bruce, 020-8672 0114
The Glasshouse, 020-8940 6777