Of course you know Gordon’s Wine Bar. You might not know its name – but you know it if you’re a Londoner. Come out from Embankment Tube on to Villiers Street and it’s there on your right: the dusty window, the stone steps running down beneath the street and, inside, a candlelit cellar full of old bottles and sherry casks where colleagues, friends and lovers can cozy up over a glass of something that won’t break the bank. No, you can’t order a cocktail here. No, you can’t have a beer. But no one minds – why would they? This is Gordon’s Wine Bar, going strong since 1890, a real London landmark – and a prime example of a family business. Now three generations of Gordons find themselves in the hospitality trade and opening up a new venture – just about right next door.
On a rainy afternoon I have the chance to share a bottle of wine with the whole family – and immediately feel drawn by their warmth. Around the table are Wendy Gordon, a welcoming matriarch: she’s the widow of Luis Gordon, who took over Gordon’s in 1975. Its original proprietor had been one Angus Gordon, no relation – a striking coincidence that meant the place always had a family feel to Luis and Wendy. Two of the couple’s six sons join us: Simon, who runs Gordon’s now – “But I always keep Ma very informed, she gets the figures every week and she jumps up and down if she doesn’t get them on time!” – and Tom, who, with his daughters Sophie (28) and Rose (24), will be launching Villiers later this month, a restaurant at the top of the street.
For the Gordons it’s clear that there’s little distinction between work and home. Gordon’s, Wendy says, is “really part of our home – because my husband was such a collector, all the pictures, the bottle collection, everything that’s in here, really came from our home. It’s family life. It’s very genuine, it’s not a theme – and, of course, he wanted to keep it exactly as it had been for years and years and years.”
Simon started working at Gordon’s when he was 18. He left for a career in finance but returned after his father’s death in 2002. Tom worked here with his wife when they were first married, taking it over at the weekend. “My wife would make cakes and pastries and flans, and we’d play all the old jazz records that my father had – Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Waller… We loved it.” He too left, to work in films and then advertising. Selling his ad agency meant he could invest in a new business, and the draw of the family trade was strong. “I could have done anything, yes – but I wanted to do something with the children. Sophie’s background has been very much in food and wine and pub management, so I wanted to do something with her, and with Rose as well, who is keen in the same way.”
Villiers will be very different from Gordon’s: it will open at 7am and serve an all-day menu, catering both for those who want to sit and take their time and the busy throngs who want to grab something and go – the neighbourhood is pretty heavy with chains (Nero, Starbucks, Pret A Manger) and this will be an alternative. Food will be local and seasonal – “but that’s just a given, we’re not shouting about that,” Sophie says. Coffee (about which Rose is particularly passionate) is being sourced from a roastery in Wales; and there will be sherry-based cocktails as a tribute not only to Gordon’s but also to the Gordon family history – they have been importing the stuff since the 1700s. As for the location just a few doors down from Gordon’s – the family sees that as an advantage. “If they come to Gordon’s wanting a beer – which they won’t be able to get – they can just pop to us down the road!” Tom says.
I wonder if a family name or a family business can ever be a burden. Restaurateur Ossie Gray finds it something of a double-edged sword. Gray is the hugely successful proprietor of The White Horse in Surrey (where, by complete coincidence, some of the Gordon family’s earliest meetings about Villiers took place) and the newly reopened Brackenbury in west London, which has had a stellar reception. And he is also the son of the late Rose Gray – founder, with Ruth Rogers, of London’s famous River Café, where he and I meet over lunch.
While it’s clear Ossie loves the River Café and loved his mother – she died of cancer in 2010 – always being thought of as Rose Gray’s son has been a challenge. Well, “a nightmare”, he says, in that people think he had it easy. But he didn’t. “I started the business with her. I’ve been here all the way. Ruth and Rose were amazing creators but they weren’t that good at the business side. They asked me to come in because they wanted to get on with the food.” That said, when I order a starter of puntarelle alla Romana – a kind of chicory salad with a delicious, anchovy-based dressing – he describes, at length, and with love and great clarity, how his mother loved puntarelle, and how she had a firm belief that much of the success of the dish came from cutting up this slightly bitter green in just the right way; he moves his hands, following the pattern of an invisible leaf, to show me. “We would go to other places where they served this salad, and she would always notice how it was cut – ‘It should be wonderful,’ she’d say, ‘but they just haven’t cut it quite right.’”
But over the course of a meal with Gray, it’s clear that the joy outweighs the burden of a family name, and that’s certainly true in the Gordons’ case. “It’s not a burden because I’ve never known anything different,” says Sophie. “I remember when Daddy first pointed out Gordon’s, when we came to London – we’d have lunch at Granny’s house, and all the brothers would be there. There would be this buzzy atmosphere – just like the one that’s here – then when I came to London for uni and started coming here myself, it felt very special, unique and I felt very privileged to be part of it. But there wasn’t a point when it started, it was always there.” Lucky not just for Sophie – but for all the Gordon’s patrons, past and future, as well.
Gordon’s Wine Bar, 47 Villiers Street, London WC2N 6NE, gordonswinebar.com.
Villiers opens this month at 31a Villiers Street, London WC2N 6ND. The Brackenbury, 129-131 Brackenbury Road, London W6 0BQ, brackenburyrestaurant.co.uk
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