After two years out of the kitchen to concentrate on writing, ex-Eagle chef Tom Norrington-Davies is back in the kitchen at Great Queen Street. Tom Vaughan reports on a chef and a restaurant who, with little or no fanfare, have caused a stir on the London scene
Tom Norrington-Davies at the bar of Great Queen Street, the London pub-restaurant he has opened with a group of fellow pioneers of the gastropub movement
Tom Norrington-Davies, cookery writer and former chef at the Eagle in Farringdon, saunters into his new restaurant, Great Queen Street, with the modesty of a family butcher. In fact, it's a family butcher he most closely resembles. There's no embroidered chef jacket, just a blue and white striped apron hanging from his neck and from each of his hands swings a blue plastic bag of fresh produce, purchased down the road.
The usual early-morning hustle and bustle of a London restaurant can be daunting, but in the deep-red walls of the Covent Garden site two sous chefs quietly busy themselves with prep in the open kitchen while front-of-house staff slowly trickle in. Rob Shaw, the restaurant manager, tidies behind the long bar that occupies much of one wall in the narrow room, as Norrington-Davies excuses himself briefly, handing the bags to the kitchen with brief instructions. To the left of his head is a chalkboard with three specials scrawled on it, including potted tongue and rabbit niçoise.
As he ambles back he explains that he popped out to pick up some extra produce. "We're having real trouble with the chips at the moment," he explains. "This time of year the potatoes are just so full of sugar, which means they go that dark colour so quickly, so we're using other stuff until we get decent spuds again."
Great Queen Street is the product of what Time Out labelled a "fantasy team" of London gastropub virtuosos. Head chef Norrington-Davies is an alumnus of the Eagle in Farringdon, where he worked in the kitchen for nine years Shaw has come from the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo Jonathon Jones is a partner, while still cooking at the Anchor & Hope while Mike Belben, founder of the Eagle, is also an investor.
Norrington-Davies had been on a two-year sabbatical from the kitchen to concentrate on writing (two cookbooks and countless national newspaper columns) when the desire to return to the stove kicked in. "I didn't want to be known as just a food writer," he says. "I began to feel you can only write about what you do, and I was writing about something I wasn't doing. I wasn't happy being a writer who cooks I'd much rather be a cook who writes."
He and Belben had their ears firmly to the ground for the right opportunity when their friend Shaw found a "grotty Sky Sports bar", as Norrington-Davies describes it, opposite the Masonic Lodge on Great Queen Street. The quartet jumped at the chance. Norrington-Davies put in some money from his two cookbooks, the others made up the remainder, and on 15 March they got the keys.
The turnaround was remarkable. Within 32 days the blue felt wallpaper had been ripped down, the far end knocked through for an open kitchen and the interior painted a deep, dark red. What do you call that colour? I ask. "I can't remember the actual name. I think the ceiling is ‘nicotine something'," he answers. "AA Gill called the whole look ‘blood clot and dripping', which I like the best."
The reasoning behind the colour? "It worked at the Anchor & Hope," is the reply. The rest of the room has the same simple ethos. The stark wooden tables were "the cheapest we could get our hands on", he explains. "Some were here already, I think." And the long bar was purposely kept to encourage people to eat informally on the accompanying stools.
If you have visited Great Queen Street, with its simple lighting, practical cutlery and lack of paintings, you won't be surprised to hear that the costs for the restaurant were, in Norrington-Davies words, "quite a small amount of money for a set-up".
"So many restaurants spend fortunes on the design and the interior then, two years later when they're in the red, wonder where all the money went," he says. "I don't like the pretence of it. As long as this place was similar to eating in the ambiance of someone's own front room, then I knew I'd be happy."
And I imagine the starkness draws more attention to what's on the plate, I proffer. "Yeah, I guess so," he replies, as if the thought had never crossed his mind. "That'd be an added bonus."
If little was spent on the decor, even less was spent on the opening. There was no big launch night, just friends and family and the 70-seat restaurant doesn't even have a sign out front, something Norrington-Davies has no intention of changing.
Even the name is simplicity itself. "We couldn't decide on what to call it. First we thought let's call it something to do with the Anchor & Hope. So we thought of the Anchor Bar & Grill, but next door is a bar and grill. Then we thought about the Anchor Brasserie, but then we realised we're in Covent Garden and every other place is called a brasserie. So we just stuck with the address. I think it's got a nice ring to it. In my opinion it's bad luck to change the name of a restaurant - a bit like a ship."
The soft opening could come across as supremely cocky, but Norrington-Davies's modesty quashes this. "To tell the truth, I can't see any point in making a fuss saying ‘We've arrived'. You have a big do and get all schmoozy, but still struggle the next night. I'd rather just let people find us."
Despite the lack of an opening, the restaurant filled up immediately. Even though they had no dedicated PR team and spent nothing on promoting themselves, both Time Out and the Evening Standard arrived to review the restaurant within a week. "In fact, I remember when Fay Maschler came in," he recalls. "We had our night for friends and family, then the next evening she came for dinner. She must follow oven delivery vans around London."
Two glowing reviews later, and the place was full. In fact, it has yet to receive anything near a bad review from the major critics.
I pose the question of whether they were playing safe, opening so close to the Eagle and the Anchor & Hope, with their reputations as alumni and the local clientele familiar with the style and cooking. "Our reputation is both a blessing and a curse," he replies. "We get people who come in who say it's nowhere near as good as the Anchor & Hope, let's pop round the corner instead. And rightly so, in my eyes. That place is a legend, you never hear a bad word said against it."
The style of cooking is largely a continuation of the pared-down British food with Iberian influences prevalent at the Eagle. The main difference Norrington-Davies finds now, compared with 10 years ago, is their ability to circumvent the wholesalers and go straight to the farm gate. "Now I'll buy a side of cow, a couple of sheep and a pig for the week and just work through it," he says. "The menu pretty much writes itself depending on which part of the animal you are on."
The menu is testament to this nose-to-tail approach: braised leg of beef with field mushrooms rib of beef, chips and béarnaise and seven-hour lamb shoulder and boulangère are all on the daily menu, while marrow stuffed with lamb ragoût potted tongue ("I only have one cow's tongue a week, so have to make it last by potting it") and rabbit niçoise all sit on the specials board. "We use the shoulder in the niçoise, as it's quite difficult to cook with. We confit it and chuck it in a niçoise salad," he explains.
There are also smaller dishes available either as starters or bar snacks. "When they opened the Eagle, David [Eyre] and Mike [Belben] wanted people to come in and eat at the bar," he explains. "But being a popular boozer at the same time negates that." However, with little wet trade, Great Queen Street can make good use of the seats at the bar, and within weeks of opening Norrington-Davies added smaller dishes such as sand eels and aïoli, crab on toast and warm snail and bacon salad to the menu to cater for more informal bar diners. Now the restaurant is doing anything between 100 and 150 covers daily, and with dishes priced from £5 to £20, the average spend varies hugely and can be anything from £15 to £50.
After nine years in the Eagle kitchen, and a previous four in the Peasant on London's St John Street, this is a style of cooking that Norrington-Davies is well versed in, although he admits that butchering whole animals is still something he's yet to come to terms with. In fact, it is this style of cucina rustica, or "peasant cooking", as he calls it, that really grabbed him back in the early 1990s.
"It's hard to imagine now, but when the Eagle opened there just wasn't anything like it," he says. "It was before the word ‘gastropub' even existed. A place that was doing simple, seasonal food over the counter at a pub. Now there's one on every corner."
Working in a run-of-the-mill kitchen near by in Clerkenwell, he approached Eagle founders, Belben and Eyre, for a job in 1992, shortly after it opened. They said they were full, but pointed him in the direction of the Peasant, just round the corner. Four years, and innumerable eating and drinking sessions with the pair at the Eagle later, Norrington-Davies casually dropped into conversation that he would be keen to work there. This time a position was available, and the next nine years is history, with the Eagle now accredited with starting the gastropub movement.
So what precipitated the rise in popularity of simple British nose-to-tail eating on a London scene firmly dominated by haute and nouvelle cuisine during the late 1980s? "People forget how massive the recession of the early 1990s was," he recalls. "What was on offer were these really top-end white-tablecloth restaurants. Someone needed to democratise eating out, and that's what this style of food and restaurant did. All those old behemoths from the eighties were dying out, and in their place came the Eagle and St John [Fergus Henderson's bar and restaurant in Smithfield]. You could see it happening. Floods of suits came into the Eagle, firstly because it was in quite a media-trendy part of the city, and secondly because it was cheap. We could afford to put prices low, as we weren't flying in avocados from across the world but were using cheap, seasonal produce."
This style of seasonal British food, he hopes, is still only in its infancy. "I'd like to see restaurants putting a stop to buying all the rubbish produce. It's not easy you have to ask a lot of questions of everything you buy. I think only a minority of places have this as their core ethos, but I'd like to see it spread across the whole spectrum."
He tails off as a sous chef approaches with a bowl of chips.He breaks one in half and tastes it. Then he ponders for a moment. "No… OK," talking to the sous chef, "only put them on with the ribs - and no sides of chips today."
"We're not in touch with the people who grow natural ingredients," he continues. "So many restaurants have to have chips on at all costs that they forget where they came from. Hopefully, a customer might see our specials board and remember where the produce came from. That's what cooking is all about."
Tom Norrington-Davies on gastropubs
Despite being an integral part of the team at the Eagle, accredited with starting the gastropub movement, Norrington-Davies has strong feelings about the word.
"I hate the term gastropub. Why can't we just use the word pub instead? Gastropubs are really just bringing pubs back to what they were always meant to be: warm places with hearty food and good beer. The English bistro was always the pub, and it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that it got fucked up when big breweries took over and you had the awful notion of a ‘fun pub' with keg beers and tenants on ridiculous contracts where they had to do whatever the brewery said. It was when the Monopolies & Mergers Commission allowed entrepreneurial leases in pubs. It was only a matter of time before someone put two and two together, and it just happened to be Mike [Belben] and David [Eyre]. They realised they couldn't afford the business rates on a restaurant, but they could afford to knock out good food over the bar of a pub. And it just took off from there."
What the critics said
This is a solid restaurant with a real identity of its own, serving the sort of food central London needs at a fair price. What's more, unlike at the Anchor & Hope, you can actually book. Hurrah! And I'm always going to be well disposed to a menu that lists things like new season's garlic soup, bacon with green sauce, and, most enticingly, a seven-hour roasted shoulder of Hereford lamb ‘for five-ish', priced at £62.50.
Jay Rayner, the Observer
A joint project between the chef and food writer Tom Norrington-Davies and partners in two of our more fêted gastropubs (the Eagle and the Anchor & Hope), there is a lack of pomp verging on starkness here that appealed even before the first dish arrived Then the food started coming, and a succession of reasonably priced, splendidly simple and beautifully cooked dishes acted on our strop like Jeeves's raw egg and Worcestershire sauce pick-me-ups on a Bertie Wooster hangover. (Rating 9/10)
Matthew Norman, the Guardian
It's amazing, the fuss people make about opening restaurants. The multimillion-pound refurbs, the celebrity consultants, the press kits, the gimmicks, the let-me-explain-how-the-menu-works And then you walk in here a couple of weeks after opening and you laugh, because these boys have the magic. The green fingers. They make it look so damn easy. (Rating 9.33/10)
Giles Coren, the Times
What I particularly like is that it reflects a lot of particularly English qualities that have got lost or dumped or sneered at in much of contemporary culture. Taciturn directness, thoughtfulness, a pleasure in craft, a mistrust of art, a joy in small things and details, a belief in the quality of sturdy things, openness, honesty and blushing. This is Leveller food, nonconformist, with a touch of piety and a subtle, ironic humour. If you can't sense all that in warm duck heart, bacon and foie gras salad, then you're not concentrating. Or you're Belgian. (Rating 4/5)
AA Gill, the Sunday Times