Quaglino's a decade on

10 February 2003 by
Quaglino's a decade on

When Terence Conran opened Quaglino's, he picked the launch-night with his usual flair for publicity: it was Valentine's Day 1993. The place has been a magnet for journalists ever since. Whether the stories are about the celebrities who have passed through its doors, or the huge number of designer ashtrays stolen, few restaurants can match the media coverage Quaglino's has enjoyed since that opening.

In fact, more accurately, it was a reopening. The original restaurant started trading on 1 October 1929, under the control of the man who gave it his name, Giovanni Quaglino. He was no slouch himself when it came to publicity, managing to attract Evelyn Waugh, the Mountbattens and the Prince of Wales as regular customers. The restaurant's link with royalty continued, and in 1956 the present Queen became the first monarch in living memory to dine in a public restaurant.

Eventually, the restaurant ended up in the hands of Trusthouse Forte, but in 1980 the company decided to sell the site for redevelopment. Conran bought a 99-year lease in 1992.

Conran has always described himself primarily as a designer, and the new Quaglino's was nothing if not a triumph of design. The fashion world was particularly impressed. Vogue said it had the lot: "generous space and scale, spectacular decor, delicious brasserie food, a sensible wine list and a top address". Predictably, customers came in droves.

And with the crowds came money. At its height, Quaglino's was taking £10m a year from diners eager to sample its particular brand of theatrical glamour. More than 1,000 customers a day ate there. On one occasion the restaurant served 852 meals in a single evening.

In the wake of a recession, these were staggeringly successful figures. And even if they have not been sustained, the restaurant still does business that many other restaurants envy.

Des Gunewardena, chief executive of Conran Holdings, certainly feels he has every reason to remain bullish about the restaurant's financial health. "When we first opened Quaglino's our turnover was vastly more than we expected. We were packed every day and every night - we began lunch at 11am and dinner at 5pm. Tables were so sought after that City traders made a market for reservations at Quaglino's. In our first year we budgeted £6m sales and achieved £10m.

"Sales aren't quite as ferocious now, but Quaglino's is still a very successful restaurant and almost as busy at peak times as it has always been. Last Saturday night we served 660 in the restaurant and more than 300 people in the bar. We may not serve the 11am lunches anymore, but our current sales are still about two-thirds of the levels they were at their peak."

Press coverage has perhaps changed more radically than annual takings. In the early years much of it echoed Vogue's praise, but not everything since has been so laudatory.

The guides, too, indicate that not everyone likes Quaglino's. Harden's UK Restaurants 2003 guide dismisses it as "once-celebrated" and prints a number of less-than-flattering assessments, including the observation that it is "well past its sell-by date" and that its food is "duff" and "over-priced". The Time Out guide is kinder, but remains decidedly restrained: "Quaglino's can be underwhelming", it concludes.

In Quaglino's defence, loyalists argue that a high-profile restaurant group such as Conran always has and always will attract mixed views. It still has many loyal customers, as its trading figures indicate, and the staff who opened the restaurant in 1993 continue to remember it fondly.

Martin Webb, the original executive chef, says: "Stepping into the room was astounding. It was like going to the theatre. People went for the occasion. The service was good. The food was good. It was the full package."

Eric Garnier, the first restaurant manager, adds: "It helped enormously that we had such a good restaurant to work in. One of the things that Terence is good at is sticking to his guns, and he has an eye and an understanding for the business, which makes him very good to work for. He spent a lot of money on Quaglino's, but he spent it well."

The opening night was packed with the famous, the rich, and the connected. The next few years were packed with everyone who's anyone.

Such success demanded hard work, though. Webb recalls working 18-20 hours a day for three months, without a day off. After that he took it a little easier, but was still doing a 75-hour week. It was good, but it was tough.

The sense of occasion that Quaglino's creates for those who enjoy it is enhanced by its liveried doormen, the curved sweeping staircase which takes customers down to the mezzanine level, and its sheer size. It has 90 seats in the bar alone, another 338 in the restaurant. When Quaglino's is full, as it usually was in the mid-1990s, its very busy-ness helps to create the effect of a restaurant where everybody wants to be.

And although the restaurant is certainly less consistently crowded than it was at its peak, nobody at Conran admits to looking forward to anything other than another successful decade of business.

Terence Conran himself is no doubt: "I like to think that it will still be around in 100 years - after all, it has managed 74 so far! Quaglino's is timeless and continues to impress and thrill. The beauty of it is that, while it may be a marvellous place for a celebration, you can sit by yourself, read a newspaper and watch the world go by in peace. The trend for larger restaurants may have declined slightly over the past 10 years, but I believe if they are well designed and serve good, affordable food they can be fun and vibrant places that will be enjoyed for many years to come."

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