Darby's – a long-term investment

The relationship between property developers and restaurateurs examined.

There is, in retrospect, an obvious chapter heading missing from my book The Art of The Restaurateur. This would be called ‘The Restaurateur as a Gambler’.

Every restaurant opening requires a huge gamble, usually a risk undertaken by a handful of committed individuals. There is the planning, a minimum of 15 to 18 months; there is the capital, a minimum of one million pounds; and there are the overheads associated with such a project whether the restaurant opens or not.

Against this has to be set some projection of sales, of how many customers this restaurant will welcome, serve and make happy. Locations that are busy for as many hours as possible then become highly desirable. That is why there are so many restaurants around Leicester Square, in Piccadilly Circus and around Times Square in New York. Simply because that is where the largest number of potential customers tend to linger for the longest possible period of any day or night.

Robin Gill is an Irish-born chef who obviously has some of this gambling streak in him. After a reasonably classic training with Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc, Gill found success with The Dairy in Clapham, an exciting restaurant in an area of south London that, other than nearby Trinity, has been under-supplied with good restaurants given the huge number of people who work and live nearby.

I knew that Gill was aware of the financial inducements that can await a brave chef and restaurateur who believes he has a winning formula inside him. Over the past decade at least, numerous property developers across the globe have seen the potential of locking in a restaurant as an exciting inducement to their future tenants and residents. This is a process I have been involved in on behalf of developers Argent for the past seven years in their redevelopment of King’s Cross.

And it was here that I first came across Gill, although admittedly at arm’s length. He seemed very interested in one particular site at King’s Cross. Negotiations got very close to a deal; a significant financial inducement was on offer; but eventually Gill pulled out. This was our loss because I believe Gill is a talented chef whose restaurant would have been widely appreciated.

Shortly afterwards Gill must have entered into negotiations with Ballymore for their huge redevelopment of Embassy Gardens. This vast area between Vauxhall and Battersea Power Station can best be described as ‘cranearama’ for gantry ubiquity. Everywhere that is not the completed, moated and extremely unfriendly American Embassy is awash with cranes and builders. And one is assailed by signs telling one that there is 2.8 million sq feet of retail space; a 1 kilometre-long linear park; and how many minutes it takes from here to reach Heathrow, Gatwick and the Eurostar.

The apartments will presumably be completed several years in the future, and inhabitants to live in them and take advantage of the travel times to these airports are thin on the ground. So what is there at the moment?

Well, there is the Embassy although I am not sure how many potential restaurant customers this building will yield. And there are the many who work nearby in Vauxhall, although Vauxhall station is a brisk 10-minute walk away – and that was on a fine but sunny August lunchtime. The river is a good 10-minute walk away and the only views from Darby’s, the name Gill has given his new restaurant, are of the Embassy, a couple of large ponds and of several lorries delivering and being reversed.

Ballymore and Gill are obviously in this for the long term. Although I am not sure of their commercial relationship, I am sure that Gill is not paying a market rent and has received a significant financial contribution.

Certainly no expense has been spared on Darby’s interior. There is a bakery by the front door. There is a butchery department on the first floor where a young man wearing a heavy anorak and hood was boning out a large piece of beef on my visit. The ground floor has been finished to a very high standard with lots of natural light flooding in.

The menu at Darby’s, which gets its name from Gill’s father’s nickname as a trumpeter, aims to offer something for everyone throughout the day. There is the full Irish breakfast; they have a full range of cocktails; there is a weekend brunch menu. There is also an extensive lunch menu that looks, at first, to be quite exciting.

I was recognised, so as we sat down on the rather windswept terrace we were immediately brought a couple of glasses of champagne. But, as The Times restaurant reviewer Giles Coren recently wrote when the same happened to him, ‘it takes a lot more than this to sway my opinion’. And, as though reading my mind, the attractively dressed waitress followed this up with a couple of  amuses bouches, tasty small skewers of smoked eel, peppers and green olives.

The menu is large, broken down into all too familiar headings of snacks, dishes from the oyster bar, first courses, and the grill, which supplies two meat courses – a rump steak and a sirloin steak with sauces on the side – and two fish dishes, a fillet of monkfish and a fillet of turbot.

Our starters were stracciatella, (£8.50), the creamy cow’s milk cheese that has the consistency of rice pudding, topped with slices of peaches and olives, obviously one of this kitchen’s favoured ingredients, and Jersey milk ricotta agnolotti with sweetcorn and cobnuts (£13). Both were very good.

As were our main courses, a Cornish native lobster brioche roll, with roe mayonnaise, a dish that always reminds me of New England and also of a lunch I once had in New York at The Pearl Oyster Bar. These were almost as good, nice and peppery, although I would have preferred as an accompaniment some shoestring fries rather than the crisp beef fat potatoes that are remarkably close in their appearance and taste to Shaun Searley’s confit potatoes at our son’s restaurant The Quality Chop House.

Potatoes at London restaurant Darbys

It was then that Darby’s decided to kill us with kindness. We had decided to share a chocolate mousse with Guinness ice cream but they thought that this was not enough and brought along a burnt honey cake with another scoop of well made ice cream, this time made from tonka beans. But this only served to prove that chefs cannot improve on raw honey. With a couple of glasses of £6 per glass rioja, I paid a bill of £84 for two.

I appreciate that I was there at lunchtime and not in the evening when I am sure Darby’s is busier. And I was there at the end of a week in August when a lot of London is still on the beach. But with no obvious passing trade, Gill’s backers at Ballymore are going to have to stretch their deep pockets before all these nearby apartments are filled and the offices are occupied.

Darby’s 3 Viaduct Gardens, London SW11 7AY; tel +44 (0)20 7537 3111

London restaurant Darbys amuse bouche