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Arbutus: Uncorking their potential

31 August 2006

Despite opening their restaurant to a stream of rave reviews, Arbutus owners Anthony Demetre and Will Smith were expecting business to tail off in July and August as customers went on holiday - or, worse still, fickle diners moved on to the next fashionable opening.

But the restaurateurs have been pleasantly surprised. August has exceeded all expectations and, while the lead-up to the bank holiday weekend was probably their quietest week to date, the 75-seat restaurant was still enjoying a full house each day.

"I feel more confident about the business," Smith says. "For the first couple of months, I was looking in the diary for the week ahead and thinking, ‘OK, we should be all right.' Now I'm not doing that so much. I expected the last two weeks of August to be down a bit but, from September onwards, running into Christmas, I think we'll be at full pelt."

Such is the restaurant's location - in the heart of Soho - that most customers prebook to dine at Arbutus, but Smith finds that passing trade is healthy too. On the day that Caterer visited (Tuesday of last week), 60 covers were served at lunch, 80 were booked for dinner and a further 20 turned up on spec. "If you say, ‘Yes, we can serve you, but we need the table back in an-hour-and-a-half,' they're still happy to take it," Smith says.

Demetre explains: "Because the food is a lot simpler than at Putney Bridge [the Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant where Demetre and Smith worked previously], we're up to speed in the kitchen and we can serve three courses easily within the hour."

He adds that covers are now ranging from 800 to 1,000 a week, well in excess of their daily target of 120 covers. "We're at a situation where we are two days ahead of ourselves mise en place-wise," Demetre says. "We have to be."

Bland decor?
While the reviews have heaped praise on the restaurant's skilful cooking and great service, many have criticised the decor, describing it as "bland", "fussily minimal" or "clinical".

Demetre's riposte is that interior design is hugely subjective and, while the pair are happy to take everyone's view constructively, they have no plans to change the interior in the short term. He says: "I think it's pretty insignificant to the dining experience and, if you listened to everybody, you'd forever be changing your establishment. You've got to make a decision and stick to it."

What isn't insignificant to the dining experience, though, and what has been dubbed by many a stroke of genius, is the wine list - the 75-bin list serves wine not only by the bottle, but most by a 250ml carafe as well.

Smith says: "We wanted to offer lots of wines by the glass, but we were just cherry-picking which ones we would serve by the glass and which ones we wouldn't, and then we saw the carafe idea at [Mario Batali's] Lupa restaurant in New York."

While they were both excited by the prospect of offering so many wines by the carafe, they knew, too, that it was a high-risk strategy. "I was really nervous about it," Smith confides. "In the first week, we weren't that busy. On the Friday night, we didn't have that many in, and suddenly we'd got 40 bottles of wine opened. That was nerve-racking."

Once a bottle is open, Smith says that the restaurant has, ideally, two or three days to move the wine on, although their Vin au Verre wine preservation system will keep wine for much longer.

In each staff briefing prior to service, though, Smith goes through the wines that are open and encourages staff to sell. The staff are then kept up to speed with knowledge of wine that is opened during the course of the service. Fortunately, because the restaurant is so affordable, people are up for exploring the wine list and happy to take on staff suggestions.

"People are always asking for recommendations," Smith says. "They see that the style of wine list opens them up to all sorts of wines they could try, and it makes people far more interested. If you go to a restaurant and limit yourself to a £30 bottle of wine, you're restricted to four or five bottles at that price. Whereas, if something's available by the carafe, you can actually say, ‘We can have anything here'."

In reality, he adds, no wine is open for more than a day.

"You've got a Margaux here," cuts in Demetre. "Now, there aren't many people who are going to spend £100 on a bottle of wine, but they'd quite gladly spend £30 on a third of a bottle. We don't sell many bottles of wine at the £100 mark, but we sell plenty of carafes."

Worldwide appeal
At the other end of the scale are wines at just £12.50 for a bottle or £4.25 for a carafe. Anybody can pick up a wine list from another leading restaurant and copy all the big vintages, but what Smith and Demetre have compiled is a list with worldwide appeal, at all price points - with the carafes starting at just £4.25, diners can have a glass of wine for little more than £2.10.

A potential danger of the carafe scheme could be a reduction in wine spend. If people buy a carafe instead of a bottle, won't revenue from wines drop? "It hasn't reduced the wine spend at all," Smith says. "It has done the opposite - some people will have three different carafes and spend more than they would if they'd bought a bottle. And, more importantly, maybe the choice of carafes is more appropriate to their meal."

The story so far Within six weeks of opening in May, every major London restaurant critic had been through the doors of Anthony Demetre and Will Smith's first venture, Arbutus, in London's Soho. Phenomenal critical acclaim appears to have guaranteed a steady stream of custom.

But Demetre and Smith are keen to prove that the 75-seat restaurant, on the former site of early 1990s cult eaterie Bistrot Bruno (where Demetre worked as sous chef), is not just the restaurant critics' darling. Demetre and Smith are confident that Arbutus is just what Frith Street needed - and that great food and wine, combined with a sensible pricing structure, will keep people coming.

ARBUTUS
63-64 Frith Street, London W1D 3JW

  • Tel 020 7734 4545
  • Websitewww.arbutusrestaurant.co.uk
  • Owners Anthony Demetre and Will Smith
  • Employees 20 (including Demetre and Smith)
  • Total investment £600,000
  • Seats 75
  • Covers 120-plus per day
  • Open Seven days a week, lunch and dinner

Ask an expert According to Ronan Sayburn, executive head sommelier at Gordon Ramsay Holdings, selling wine by the carafe is a great idea and one he thought about employing at the group's Maze restaurant.

In the end, because of the size of Maze, he decided to serve flights of wine alongside the restaurant's tasting menu. But he says that, provided Arbutus has smart staff and they are kept up to date on what to sell, it's an excellent approach.

"Younger-style wines actually benefit from decanting," Sayburn says, "so if someone has a carafe at lunchtime and it's then offered at dinner, that evening's diner is in for a treat. It's a very good idea and it's got the restaurant lots of publicity.

"On the downside, it could lead to reduced wine sales, but if controlled well there will be no wastage. It's a brave thing but a great move, and I wish them the best of luck."

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