Thirty years ago, young, confident and in retrospect remarkably naive, I opened my restaurant L’Escargot in Soho, London. Ill health forced me to sell at the end of the 1980s but I often reflect on what might have been.
Naturally, I was seeking to emulate the best restaurants of the time. My overriding goal, though, was to introduce friendly service and a sense of fun into what was then a predominantly formal affair. Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, who now oversee The Wolseley, focused on the same principles when they opened Le Caprice in the same year.
In my worst nightmares I am a restaurateur again – except this time in today’s far more competitive market. I have to say I wonder how I would survive. That set me thinking about new, young restaurateurs today who, I believe, combine good food and wine with great service and flair. I came up with 10 of them and I also gave some thought to how the London restaurant scene has – and hasn’t – changed.
The name. Fortunately, I took my mother’s suggestion and shortened the restaurant’s original title from L’Escargot Bienvenu to L’Escargot. Today, names really do need to be short and memorable, no matter what language they’re in.
Above all, it seems that they must not include the word restaurant, which signifies expense and formality. The owners of Hawksmoor pride themselves on it being principally a steak restaurant; those behind Zucca in Bermondsey Street on running a good value Italian restaurant – but neither mentions the “R” word.
The location. London’s West End still thrives; a bubble, as restaurant agents refer to it, even within the capital. But Soho remains quiet on a Sunday, which might at least mean a day off for the owner and his family. Not the case over in Exmouth Market, at Caravan, for which Sunday is frequently the busiest day of the week.
Size. L’Escargot could seat 180 across three floors and this is where I believe I would have struggled today. All the restaurants listed here are smaller, with a maximum of 70 to 80, invariably on one floor, and rely on turning tables to prosper. Spuntino, an American diner in Soho – squeezed between sex shops and the increasingly popular dessert counters – seats 26 at one counter. Yet on a busy day, and an even busier night, this will serve more than 260.
Reservations. I had a policy of reservations on the two upper floors of the restaurant and a no-booking policy on the ground floor, which was less expensive. I believe I would have struggled to maintain this differentiation.
Today, the move is definitely towards not taking reservations. Vinoteca’s policy has been so successful that it has opened a second branch near Marble Arch. The restaurant will take bookings for lunch but not dinner – when the opportunity for customers to have a glass of wine while they wait will, its owners hope, also encourage them to buy from the wine shop.
The customers. Here is possibly the biggest change. Whereas most of my customers were in the 35-60 age bracket, most of the customers who keep all these restaurants busy and buzzing are aged 25-40.
Customers today have come to rely on these restaurants not just as a place to eat but as a place to relax. Dishoom is such a fun, modern interpretation of an Indian restaurant that waiting is no great chore. The same is true of The Riding House Café, whose sense of humour is evident in its squirrel lampshades.
Food and wine. I am certain that L’Escargot’s chef Martin Lam (now at Ransome’s Dock, Battersea) and I would have introduced more spices and Asian influences on to the menu, as well as wines from Austria, Greece, New Zealand and Italy.
What I was definitely missing. I know now that I would not have prospered unless I had introduced good cocktail barmen and baristas. I would still be buying my coffee from the Algerian Coffee Stores on Old Compton Street, however.
But where I would have had to expand my own role is in the education of my staff, sending chefs on internships and encouraging sommeliers to visit winemakers.
This is because perhaps the biggest change in restaurants has been how eager so many customers are to learn. Invariably, I discover something about wine over dinner at Brawn or Terroirs, and something about Venice after a few cicchetti at Da Polpo. Such information is not included on the bill.
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The Riding House Café