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The Caterer

Man of the Match

02 July 2004
Man of the Match

Thank you, Jonathan Downey, for opening the best cocktail bar I've ever been to. OK, so I'm hardly alone in my appreciation. Everybody who has been to Milk & Honey agrees, including the bar guides and style magazines, which have piled on the awards. Last week it was named Best Bar in the London Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards.

To be accurate, I should say thank you Sasha Petraske. He's the New Yorker behind the original Milk & Honey in Manhattan, although it was Downey who persuaded Petraske to open up a branch in London in 2002 (they're now partners). But, then, Downey is a persuasive kind of guy.

Now on his seventh bar opening in seven years - or ninth if you count the partnership with Petraske, and his latest New York collaboration, the Eastside Company Bar - Downey has decided to diversify. He has just opened a restaurant in London's Clerkenwell (with a large bar attached, of course), and he will be opening a boutique hotel in Chamonix, France, in November.

But Downey, bars and hotels go back a long way - he had plenty of experience of both in his former incarnation as an international lawyer. Yes, this black flip-flopped, surfer-shorted, T-shirt-wearing 38-year-old has been a high-rolling corporate lawyer, and mergers and acquisitions were his thing. "A lot of those skills are useful for something like this," he says.

Downey has worked in Hong Kong, the Middle East and New York, setting up branch offices and sealing deals, all the while sipping cocktails and sleeping in swanky five-star hotels. "Then I came back to work in London and it was like, ‘Do you want ice and lemon with that?' Of course I want ice and lemon in my gin and tonic," shudders Downey.

"It was desolate in London in 1996," he remembers. "There was absolutely nowhere to drink. The best thing on offer was All Bar One, or there was the Groucho - great if you were a member."

So eight months after returning to work in London he opened his first Match bar on Clerkenwell Road, which won two awards in its first year.

There are now six bars in the group, in locations from Shoreditch to Soho, and Downey stopped being a lawyer with the opening of bar number two, Match in the West End. "I remember missing a meeting at Chase Manhattan and thought: ‘I can't do both any more'," he says.

"Do I miss it? Not really. I miss the fabulous PA organising my entire life, and I miss the resources of a gigantic law firm and the mix of clever, cool people.

"There are a lot of cool lawyers who go on and do other things, you know," he adds a tad defensively.

And what does he put the group's success down to? The drinks. Downey signed up New York cocktail guru Dale DeGroff as a consultant to the group - and boy, can that man mix a drink.

DeGroff made his name in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the head bartender at New York's famous Rainbow Room. There, he revitalised cocktail classic The Cosmopolitan, which, thanks to him, is still the most requested cocktail in bars the world over. His signature twist is a garnish of flaming orange peel, which undoubtedly elevates the drink but is definitely not to be tried at home. It's best left to DeGroff and his highly skilled team.

This is another thing Downey's bars are known for - the high level of skill. The first Tuesday of every month is training day. Then there's the little monthly test Downey sets, just to keep them on their toes, and the entrance exam you need to pass if you want to secure a job here.

"They need to know what blanc de blancs Champagne is, and whether bourbon can be distilled anywhere outside Kentucky," he explains. Out of a total of 30 bartenders across the group, 14 have reached senior bartender level or higher, and they return the favour with a significantly lower-than-industry-average staff turnover.

"A great drink is the driving force," declares Downey. "Not everyone can afford 1961 P‚trus, but they can afford a great gin and tonic. It's about democratising quality."

And his customers seem to appreciate it. Downey claims that 40% of all wet sales are cocktails, and cocktails make up 90% of sales at Milk & Honey. However, he concedes: "I reckon 75% of people who come into my bars don't appreciate the great level of cocktails we do."

Still, cocktails make a good profit, don't they? "I'm only paying myself 5% of what I was earning as a lawyer," he says. "We have a group turnover of £8m and made a £750,000 profit this year, with 120 staff, but I hope I'm building some valuable assets."

His most recent asset is the former East One restaurant - a new name is yet to be unveiled - in Clerkenwell. Located in St John's Street, it's a huge space of 3,500sq ft on the ground floor with the same above.

Downey had moved in the week before we met (at the end of May), and planned to open it up for business the next day. The first round of refurbishment was under way: re-covering the tan banquette seating; substituting beech surfaces for trendier dark wood; painting the white ceiling a deep red. "It'll look rather like Hakkasan," suggests Downey, who cites Alan Yau's landmark Chinese restaurant as a design favourite.

He can barely contain his excitement. It's a posh version of Covent Garden's Mongolian Barbecue, and diners will be able to help themselves to ingredients and sauces and let the chefs, headed by Johnny Ho, cook their meal for them.

There are three different kinds of noodle dishes, four different meats, two fish and 15 vegetables to choose from, plus … la carte dining - all with a focus on healthy eating. Add to that a DJ booth, a top bartender and plans to develop the first floor into a swanky private members bar and Downey reckons he's on to a winner.

But perhaps his most interesting opening to date has been Trailer Happiness in Portobello Road, which was shortlisted for a design award by Time Out. That's quite some achievement when you consider Downey spent just £19,000 on its refurbishment - and £5,000 of that was on the sound system.

Downey bought most of its interior off online auction Ebay. He is particularly pleased with four original Boots-framed Mrs Wong prints, the wall-hung flying ducks and the Athena-style sunset posters.

He calls it a tiki bar. I have to ask, what is that exactly? "You have to think back to the USA in the late 1950s and 1960s, the time of Elvis in Blue Hawaii. It was all about having a better, more optimistic, more exotic way of life," explains Downey, momentarily oblivious to the sound of his mobile, which rings constantly. "And that's where the cocktail umbrellas come from."

He couldn't tell me much about his new hotel in Chamonix old town, other than that the three-storey building will house the best bar in the Alps. It also features five suites, from g200 (£132) per double, and two bunk rooms sleeping 10 per room, at g50 (£33) a head.

"We want all the young snow-boarder types as well. And we want them in the bar. There's no point in having all wealthy people," he says. Work will start on the site soon and an opening date is set for November.

So where does he go from here? "I'm desperate to open another Match bar," he says. "There's real legs in that style of business, and I've not opened a new one in four years."

So where's the opening likely to be? His hometown, Manchester? "No way. Manchester is more like Magaluf these days; it had its bar heyday in the early 1990s. I'm more likely to go international," he reveals, finally taking a mobile phone call. It's his wife. "I'd better get that," he grins.

Downey has three kids, with another on the way, and lives locally, in Clerkenwell. "I watch people walking past on their way to work with their paper tucked under their arm and I know I've made the right decision," he says. And, with that, he flip-flops off.

What makes the perfect bar? Jonathan Downey reveals what he thinks are the five most important factors:

Drinks: "The best you can make". Downey's favourite is a gin martini, made with Tanqueray or Beefeater gin. He also owns a premium brand drinks company called Proof Liquor, whose Proof Kolsch and Proof Pilsen beers are already stocked by top London bars, and a vodka on the way.

Service : "I like to call it snappy happy - good, snappy and efficient."

Music: "It's important to enhance the experience. I don't like chart music in bars because I'm trying to give them an experience they don't get at home. A current favourite is Ralph Myerz, a Swedish guy who makes all the music himself.

Food: "I still haven't found really good bar food, although the Lonsdale Bar [near Portobello Road] has done a good job. Burgers, club sandwiches and things on skewers keep me happy."

Design: "I like dark wood, none of this blonde crap. The two most important things, though, for any bar are the people that work there and the people that go there."

Downey's favourite bars - Floridita, Havana, Cuba

  • The Library Bar in the Lanesborough hotel, London
  • Mojo, Leeds
  • Bar K, Osaka, Japan

The Match Bar Group - Match EC1, 45-47 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1

  • Match Bar, 37-38 Margaret Street, London W1
  • Sosho, 2 Tabernacle Street, London EC2
  • The Player, 8 Broadwick Street, London W1
  • Milk & Honey, 61 Poland Street, London W1
  • Trailer Happiness, 177 Portobello Road, London W11
  • Former East One (to be renamed) 175-179 St John Street, London EC1
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