Restaurateuring then and now

Nick Lander and Martin Lam at L'Escargot in the 1980s

Some reflections on changes to the hospitality industry over the last few decades. Above, Nick with chef Martin Lam at L'Escargot in the 1980s.

This coming Friday, 2 June, was an important date in my professional life.

It was on 2 June 1981 that I first became a restaurateur when L’Escargot in London’s Soho eventually reopened – after many a challenge along the way such as the builders going into liquidation and locking me out of the building, only to reappear with a completely new name the following day.

The actual opening date had little to do with me. It had been chosen by my popular and very experienced maîtresse d’, the incomparable Elena Salvoni, who judged that, having left her previous position at Bianchi’s restaurant round the corner in April 1981, a couple of months was the longest she could manage without seeing her beloved customers. And vice versa. (Elena was 60 years young at the time, and later said she took on the job at L’Escargot because she took pity on me and my lack of experience.)

I have the happiest memories of this era. Of working alongside Elena, with Nick Smallwood as general manager, Martin Lam as head chef, and manager Grahame Edwards. During the planning stages I owed much to designer Tom Brent and, in the kitchens, Sue Miles and Alastair Little, neither of whom, sadly, are still with us. I enjoyed watching Stephen Chamberlain and Maxine Spanton successfully transforming the ground-floor brasserie into a cabaret that gave a then-unknown Julian Clary a platform. There were so many wonderful characters in our team and among our suppliers, but how I wish I had known then what I know today!

My subsequent career, as a restaurant writer and consultant, as well as acting as a sounding board for our restaurateur son and his business partner, have all contributed to hold me close to a profession that I thought I had irrevocably turned my back on when I sold L’Escargot due to chronic ill health and walked out of the restaurant and on to a sunny Greek Street in 1988. I have often wondered how I would have fared in London today and in a business that has changed a great deal.

The biggest change has to be in the times and the timing of restaurant hours. In my day, restaurants were open for no more than 11 shifts a week: lunch and dinner Monday-Friday and Saturday evening, remaining firmly closed Saturday lunch and all day Sunday. Today, if not open every day, many restaurants are open 12 shifts a week (depending on Sunday opening) and closed all day Monday, traditionally the quietest day of the week. That in a business that needs to cover its heavy fixed costs is a definite bonus.

But an even more fundamental change is the time limits imposed on every table by the restaurateur. Book a table virtually anywhere and you will be greeted with the following as part of the confirmation: ‘Your table will be available for two hours for parties of up to four; 2 hours 15 minutes for parties of up to six’, and so on. This condition, which invariably ends with customers being handed the bill at the end of the time slot, whether or not they have asked for it, obviously turns the financial scales heavily in favour of the restaurateur. Bookings can now be taken for 6 pm, 8 pm and perhaps even 10 pm or even 11.30 pm if the restaurant happens to be in a theatre district for instance, a process that meets with the waiting staff’s approval since the service charge on these meals will be added to their overall wages.

Until recently, perhaps as recently as five years ago and definitely in my era, this was not the case. When a customer made a booking, no time limit was set by the restaurant. A table booked for 7.30 pm was theirs for the evening. The only occasions when we may have ‘turned tables’, as they say in the restaurant business, at L’Escargot may have been on a busy Saturday night. The economic fundamentals of owning a restaurant have changed in favour of the restaurateur: one reason why the industry has attracted a great deal of interest from venture capitalists over the past decade.

Yet if sheer turnover is potentially greater, so too are the challenges facing the industry today. Like so many restaurateurs today, I would find the restricted pool of labour a challenge, in the UK a long-term consequence of Brexit. And for the past year the ever-fluctuating, invariably upwards cost of produce would certainly be a headache. As one obviously harassed chef told me recently, ‘Most of the hyper-seasonal produce seem to be in a different price bracket this year. Jersey Royal potatoes and asparagus to name a couple. Butter and most dairy products also continue to rise.’

Then there is the question that now prefaces every meal, an issue that marks a fundamental difference in eras. This takes place, or should do, in every restaurant either before or just after the order is taken and goes something like this as the member of the waiting staff asks, ‘Just checking that nobody has any allergies that the kitchen should be aware of?’ This verbal intervention is vitally important but was not a consideration when I was a restaurateur.

When we hosted the likes of Princess Diana, Mick Jagger and Ella Fitzgerald at L’Escargot, that they might have had food allergies and intolerances never occurred to us. 

I still miss the profession. Not the long hours, nor the proximity to so much good food (one of the consequences of age and/or four operations on my gut). What I miss is the build-up to a busy lunchtime; to setting the scene for a customer’s special meal; to being alone in a very quiet restaurant at 8 am with no one but Andy the cleaner and his Hoover as I tried to imagine how the day would unfold.

It is the daily opportunity to offer gestures of hospitality, something I can now practise only at home, albeit on a minute scale, that I miss most of all.

Nick Lander as been reviewing restaurants here since 2000. See all of his restaurant reviews.