Arbutus: The critics' choice

06 July 2006
Arbutus: The critics' choice

It's every restaurateur's dream to have all the major restaurant critics through their door. But how would you feel if Fay Maschler, Terry Durack, Matthew Norman, Nick Lander, Giles Coren and AA Gill all came within six weeks of opening?

This the dilemma that faced the owners of Arbutus in London's Frith Street, a modern bistro concept brought to you by Anthony Demetre and Will Smith, which opened in May.

The former head chef and general manager of the one-Michelin-starred Putney Bridge restaurant have happily mopped up rave review after rave review, and, as this page goes to press, another one is delivered - from master scribe AA Gill of the Sunday Times, no less.

For Demetre and Smith, the constant stream of praise has, as you can imagine, helped the launch of their first sole venture enormously.

"I was hugely nervous about the reviews," comments Demetre, sipping an early morning coffee as his staff set up the restaurant for lunch around him. "By the end of the second week 11 journos had dined in the restaurant and you've got to bear in mind that we hadn't cooked professionally for a year. The reviews have helped our business more than I would have dreamed - they've been absolutely astounding."

Demetre and Smith have worked together for about nine years. They met at L'Odéon - the West End restaurant set up by restaurateur Pierre Condou and acclaimed French chef Bruno Loubet - and went on to run the landmark restaurant Putney Bridge (now a branch of Thai Square) in 1998 up until its closure in April last year.

In the latter years of running Putney Bridge (a landlord-led site with 90 seats) under a management contract, they realised that the restaurant itself was not massively viable and that they could, perhaps, be reaping greater rewards running their own, smaller venture.

"We started to realise Putney Bridge was a huge struggle," Demetre explains. "Because of its sheer size, lunch trade was so damned hard, then we had the rent and all the outgoings. We'd both worked in the West End, at L'Odéon (I had also worked at Bistrot Bruno), and we thought it was a great opportunity to return to a more central location."

That opportunity came when there was a natural break in their contract. The pair immediately set about searching for a property, setting their sights on Covent Garden. "We found a great location," says Smith, "but sadly we couldn't get planning for it. It wasn't functioning as an A3 site and we couldn't get a licence."

They went to appeal but to no avail and they continued their search, working with both "the biggies" and some smaller property agents. "We were on the phone to the property agents day in, day out," Smith says. "Finding a site is a balance - you find an empty site, but it needs £2m or £3m investment. Or you find another site that doesn't need investment, but it's too small."

They looked at dozens of sites between April and September of last year and considered (read budgeted for) about four or five. "As time went on," continues Smith, "we became more confident about our concept and realised that we could actually be a bit more flexible about the site we wanted. We realised we could compromise a bit - we didn't have to have the perfect site, we didn't have to be in the perfect area."

Late into the frame came 63-64 Frith Street, which previously housed Tartufo. It was also, ironically, the former site of Bistrot Bruno, where Demetre had worked with Loubet prior to L'Odéon. In the 11 or so years since he had worked there, it had had various guises, some with steady trade, others, such as Stephen Terry and Claudio Pulze's Frith Street restaurant, a flash in the pan.

While its predecessors have ranged from pizzeria to fine-dining, Arbutus has set out its stall as a white tablecloth-free zone. The 75-seat, U-shaped restaurant based on the fast-emerging, great modern bistros of France, serves technically brilliant food, but using a shopping list of inexpensive ingredients. Demetre's cooking now shuns Wagyu beef, gratuitous helpings of foie gras and Dover sole. At Arbutus, you'll find sardines, mackerel, pig's head and, what's fast becoming a star in its own right, pieds et paquets (lamb's tripe parcels and trotters).

Writing in the Independent, critic Terry Durack says: "It's rare to see pieds et paquets on a menu outside Provence. Demetre strays little from the original, wrapping the little parcels of sheep's tripe and cooking them slowly with chopped sheep's trotters, white wine and carrots. It is rich and earthy, yet refined, and nowhere near as challenging as it may sound."

What has been universally applauded by the critics is Smith and Demetre's exceptional pricing structure. Lunch and pre-theatre is just £13.50 for two courses, £15.50 for three, but even if you go à la carte, you won't spend more than £10 on a starter or £19 on a main course. The pair are keen that people don't exceed £30 for food and with the introduction of an option to take most wines by a 250ml carafe, you don't have to blow your budget on booze either.

Business is certainly looking promising at this early stage - their goal was to serve more than 120 covers a day, but it's actually pushing 150. However, with a joint investment of £600,000 from Smith and Demetre on the site, which has an 18-year lease, they are careful not to run away with themselves, which is why they believe their pricing is key. "This industry is extremely fickle. Once people realise their bills are exceeding more than £100 for two they'll move on to the next place," Demetre says. "We don't want to become a fashionable restaurant, for us this is long term."

And what of Mr Gill, what did he have to say for himself? In his four-star review, he writes: "I couldn't make up my mind between bouillabaisse and lambs' tripe parcels filled with pigs' trotters. So I didn't, and had both. The soup came in two halves - fish and boiled potatoes on a plate, and red-rust broth in a copper pot, with aïoli, rouille and croutons, but no tongue-tying Gruyère. Again, impeccable. This is all very accomplished stuff, and it's just what Frith Street needed."

Factfile Arbutus
63-64 Frith Street,
London W1D 3JW
Tel: 020 7734 4545

Owners: Anthony Demetre and Will Smith
Number of employees: 20 (including Demetre and Smith)
Total investment: £600,000
Seats: 75
Target covers: 120-plus per day
Open: seven days a week, lunch and dinner
Interior designer: Linda Turner of iNature

Ask an expert When looking for a site, footfall helps but you pay for footfall, says Paul Thompson of Acorn Commercial Finance. Conversely if you're well known enough, people will search you out. After failing to get their preferred site in Covent Garden, Demetre and Smith rightly became more confident about their concept and realised they could be more flexible about the site. There's always a degree of compromise when settling on your location.

What the papers say

"You don't have to be a genius to turn Dover sole, wild salmon, lobster, foie gras and Wagyu beef into delicious and desirable dishes. You do have to work harder, however, to turn mutton tripe, sheep's trotters, pig's head, rabbit, mackerel and pollock into something that the pampered, modern diner might deign to touch. Which is why Arbutus stands out from the rest of the fashionable London restaurant scene."

Terry Durack, Independent
"Arbutus has all the chic style and delicious cooking of a classy top-end restaurant but the service is not so overbearing, and the prices are tasty, too. Main courses are in the £10-£20 bracket. Every wine on the 50-plus list is available by the 250ml carafe, should you just want a couple of small glasses."

Jenni Muir, Time Out
"The menu looks classic bistro but delivers refined, modern platefuls, while maintaining the flavour punch of the old school. He has reinvented pieds et paquets, to give a gentle offal hit in two tripe parcels."

Giles Coren, The Times

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