When Michael Belben and chef David Eyre opened The Eagle on Farringdon Road, London EC1, in 1991 they unwittingly established what Eyre jokingly refers to now as 'the pub stud farm'. Scores of chefs followed their example, taking over pubs which the Monopolies Commission were forcing the brewers to dispose of. As a result thousands of plates of good, inexpensive food have been served and enjoyed throughout the UK ever since.
The Eagle's success owed a great deal to Belben's charm and Eyre's culinary skills, learnt watching his mother cook in his native Mozambique, but also to the deep recession of that time. The partners responded to their customers' more circumspect spending patterns by cutting out anything superfluous - there were to be no tablecloths, no reservations, no credit cards, no tipping, no menus and no butter on the table. Instead, blackboards would announce the daily menu; olive oil would replace butter and there would be no division between the kitchen and waiting staff who would prepare vegetables, herbs and salads for the kitchen until the first customers arrived.
This concentration on value and what was on the plate rather than the bill ensured that The Eagle had surpassed the optimistic figures projected for its year end by its seventh week. Despite breaking one of its long-held policies (it now takes credit cards) it continues to prosper into its second decade.
And, despite all the late nights and early mornings a pub/restaurant demands, Belben and Eyre remain close friends although no longer partners in The Eagle which Belben now owns. But, by coincidence, they have just become neighbours if not exactly rivals in the rapidly emerging Clerkenwell area with Belben taking over another pub, The Fox, and Eyre with his brother, Robert, opening Eyre Brothers, both serving the accurate but not fussy food that is their trademark. But, as with The Eagle in 1991, so today Eyre Brothers' financial structure may serve as a model for the difficult economic future most restaurateurs now face.
Eyre Brothers is, uniquely to the best of my knowledge, a 50:50 partnership between the brothers and Stirling Ackroyd, the local estate agent whose partners have been long-time fans of Eyre's cooking. As Eyre explained over what looked like a vital early morning espresso, 'I was approached 18 months ago by the agents and shown a disused warehouse site that they thought would be difficult to let. Instead, they saw it, once properly converted into a good looking restaurant, as an added draw to the area, as a service to their current and future tenants.'
The £600,000 Stirling Ackroyd invested on what is certainly one of London's most comfortable restaurant interiors has been wisely spent, not just because landlord and tenant have been working together, thereby saving substantial professional fees, but because this released the Eyres to concentrate on the minutiae of practical restaurant design, such as the chairs borrowed from an old design for Harry's Bar; sustainable African mahogany for the floors and ceilings; and low interior screens that provide essential privacy between tables.
Without the anxiety of a bank loan or short term investors, Eyre has been allowed to crank up his buying and his cooking from a kitchen that appears to be as big as all of The Eagle. There are ingredients and flavours from Portugal, Spain, Italy and Mozambique on the menu but because they remain rigorously distinct, as parts of indigenous dishes, they do not confuse or disappoint. Grilled globe artichoke salad with pecorino and olives, deep fried octopus and squid with a piquant mayonnaise, roast monkfish and braised black cabbage and a fillet of wild sea bass with fennel all smacked of a confident chef and made me keen to return for Eyre's take on grilled Mozambique prawns piri and frijoada branca, the classic Portuguese pork and white bean stew.
Three courses for two and two glasses of wine apiece cost £99 including service. When I tackled Eyre on the absence of a fixed-price lunch menu his response was that whilst it was at the back of his mind he intends to respond to restricted consumer spend by introducing less expensive dishes, around £5-6 for first courses and £10 for main courses. Another inducement to return.
As I interviewed Eyre, Belben looked on in admiration and some surprise at his former partner's current elegant surroundings. 'What I wanted to do at The Eagle and I believe we achieved ,' he explained somewhat modestly, 'was to break down that invisible but very off-putting barrier that stands at the entrance of every restaurant and proclaims 'How much is this going to cost me?' A pub is somewhere everyone feels quite comfortable about dropping into and if the food that is then on offer is good enough, and served in a relaxed enough manner, people will stay and eat.'
Or so the man who helped put good food back into pubs believed until he took over The Fox a year ago. Firstly, the movement he had initiated made a second, suitable location far more difficult to find and far more expensive to lease and, when he finally found The Fox, a seductively named partner for The Eagle he felt, he could not understand his customers' lack of interest in its vastly improved food.
'What I realise in retrospect is that when we took over The Eagle it was empty and the local community could be drawn in by our principles, food and value. The Fox, however, has always been busy with regulars who had to be converted and as a result I have had to jettison a lot of my principles. The ground floor is still a pub where we serve hot salt beef on rye, Caerphilly ploughman's and bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches. The first floor which I had hoped would be a club room is now a restaurant that takes reservations, accepts credit cards, prints a menu and offers waitress service.'
But Belben has stuck to the rest of his business principles: relaxed atmosphere; bone-handled knives which he picks up for 10p each at car boot sales; and an insistence that the kitchen brigade delivers the gutsy cooking of strong ingredients at keen prices. From the £13.50 two-course menu came a white bean soup with pesto; roast aubergine, tomato and mozzarella on toast; a pumpkin and rosemary risotto as good as any in an Italian trattoria and two substantial pieces of calf's-liver with Swiss chard.
The kind of cooking which, ten years ago, David Eyre would have been only too happy to serve in The Eagle.
Eyre Brothers, 70 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4BP (tel 020 7613 5346)
The Fox, 28 Paul Street, London EC2 4LB (tel 020 7729 5708)
The Eagle, 159 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3AL (tel 020 7837 1353)
Big Flavours & Rough Edges by David Eyre and Eagle cooks, £16.99.