Earlier this year restaurant operators Laurence Isaacson and Brian Clivaz acquired the famous L'Escargot in London's Soho from Marco Pierre White's White Star Line. Neil Gerrard finds out what they have planned for the dining institution
There's no doubt that Laurence Isaacson and Brian Clivaz are sharp, experienced restaurant operators, but that doesn't mean they are above a little self deprecation.
Earlier this year the pair, who have worked together on a number of projects, were reunited when they acquired the famous L'Escargot restaurant in London's Soho from Marco Pierre White's White Star Line.
The witty comments and good-natured badinage continues throughout the interview, and you could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that they are not serious about the project they have undertaken, but nothing could be further from the truth.
A piece of history
The restaurant represents a £2m investment for Isaacson, Clivaz and their consortium of private backers. Situated in a townhouse dating back to 1742, L'Escargot was opened by Georges Gaudin in 1927 and is one of a handful of venerable London French restaurants that has survived in its original location.
It was run by Nick Lander and Jancis Robinson in the 1980s, and was then taken over by Marco Pierre White and business partner Jimmy Lahoud. It held a Michelin star consistently from 1996 until 2008, including for five years in what was then called the Picasso Room under Jeff Galvin.
It is probably fair to say that since then, the restaurant underwent something of a decline and, when it came to the market, its future was far from certain. But Clivaz and Isaacson clearly feel strongly about preserving its heritage.
"It almost became a Russian restaurant, and then L'Escargot would have gone forever," Clivaz explains. "That's what would pain me - that another one would go, never to return. The original Boulestin became a pizza joint, for instance."
They have rescued it from that fate for the time being - but there is work ahead if they want to preserve what is special about L'Escargot and convert nostalgic affection for it into something that makes it relevant to today's audience.
The first task they have completed is to gradually but radically refurbish the site, all while keeping the ground floor restaurant open. They have been helped in this regard by the fact that L'Escargot is a deceptively large place.
Covering 5,500 sq ft, it has a network of eight rooms, many of them upstairs. Clivaz and Isaacson haven't brought in a big name designer, but have instead brought their own considerable personality to bear on the décor.
Bold reds, blues, greens, and purples abound. They have also made liberal use of gold leaf to bring out the delicate cornice work in the ceilings of the old building, as well as adding more mundane touches, such as modernising the electrics and fire protection as well as installing free Wi-Fi and updating the customer database.
The effect, they both agree, is "very Soho", right down to a framed painting of dogs above a fireplace in the ground floor dining room, which indicates - perhaps slightly unusually for a London venue - that the restaurant is dog friendly. Although Isaacson jokingly stipulates: "As long as they are well-behaved - if they are really bad, then we will get someone to take them for a walk."
French but not kitsch
The restaurant will remain decidedly French. In fact, it will arguably become more French, given that it had more of an international theme by the time that Clivaz and Isaacson took it on. "We love French restaurants and French restaurants are a bit neglected at the moment because everyone is going for clever-clever and British," says Clivaz.
Isaacson adds: "What we wanted to do was bring it back to fin de siècle French and refresh it and make it into something a bit more sexy."
The aim is to create something that is personal, rather than kitsch, and the pair already have plans to make L'Escargot into something that is considerably more than a restaurant and makes use of all the space.
In addition to eventually serving breakfast and afternoon tea, the site will play host to the Upstairs Club, a members' club and private dining, opening on 8 September. The upstairs salon noir - a large room with a sizeable skylight that is expected to act as the lounge bar for the club - will also see a variety of events that draw on Isaacson's considerable theatre experience (see box).
Among the events the pair are planning are poetry recitals, cabaret, chansons franÁ§aises, burlesques and possibly even the odd art lecture.
"Eventually it will be seven days a week, 24 hours a day," says Isaacson.
The food Clivaz and Isaacson have secured the services of head chef Oliver Lesnik. Son of Mario Lesnik, the maÁ®tre chef de cuisine of Claridge's
for 11 years, Oliver Lesnik spent eight years at the Connaught, training under Michel Bourdin, and then working for Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett before going on to take senior roles at Auberge du Lac and White's private members' club. Lesnik, most recently executive chef of the Cadogan hotel, has been tasked with keeping the food traditionally French with the odd twist, including dishes such as the perhaps unexpectedly popular tÁªte de veau, as well as the snails that give the restaurant its name.
Clivaz and Isaacson are under no illusions that the environment in which they are operating is more competitive than ever before.
"The change in the industry has been huge at all levels," says Isaacson. "You have got to be much better than you used to have to be. If you look at restaurants like Côte or Byron, they are quality and value for money at their level. Fortunately, as people's income and their general standard of living has risen, they eat out more."
Despite that, both Clivaz and Isaacson are determined that the L'Escargot name will continue to endure, even though sadly some London restaurant institutions have long since fallen by the wayside. "In a sense we want it to be trendless," says Isaacson. "We want it to be here in 20 years' time."
From the menu
Pissaladière: onion and anchovy tart £8
Terrine de lapin 'Ma FaÁ§on': rabbit, duck and foie gras terrine £12
Coquilles St Jacques: scallops with Ventrèche bacon and lemon thyme £28
Les escargots extraordinaire: 6/£12, 9/£16
Millefeuille aux fraises £8
Crème brÁ»lée £4
Laurence Isaacson is a seasoned restaurateur, who is perhaps best known for co-founding Chez Gérard, as well as private members' club Home House alongside Brian Clivaz.
Originally from Liverpool, Isaacson went to the same Protestant school as Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and as the only Jew and the only Catholic in the school respectively, he and Harrison were left to their own devices in a classroom for half an hour each day where he claims they would fight - with Isaacson losing most of the time.
"I grew up hating George Harrison," he jokes.
He then went to grammar school with John Lennon, who was about five years older, and to the London School of Economics, where he was in the same class as Mick Jagger. Given all those links, it's surprising in a way that Isaacson ended up a restaurateur and not a musician. "If I had been able to sing, I would have been seriously rich," he says.
After a few years working in advertising, he opened a restaurant in Covent Garden in 1986 called Le Café Des Amis Du Vin before selling it and going on to found Chez Gérard with Neville Abraham, which they sold after building it up to 30 sites. Isaacson was understandably disappointed to see the closure last year of the last Chez Gérard: "It is very sad. The people who bought it could have doubled it in size. The clever thing about Côte is that it is a simple form of what Chez Gérard used to be, but they have expanded well."
In its heyday, Chez Gérard was, according to Isaacson, at the forefront of offering dinner and theatre packages and it was through this that he ended up on the board of the Ambassador Theatre Group. He is also a council member of RADA, a board member of the Royal Shakespeare Company America, chairman of the World Cancer Research Fund and an ambassador for Kidney Research UK.
After a few years living in the USA, where he swore he wouldn't open another restaurant (but ended up doing so), he returned to the UK, where Clivaz persuaded him to become the chairman of L'Escargot.
Brian Clivaz was, by his own admission, a "swotty child" who initially wanted to become a history professor. His father, the late Tony Clivaz, was the head of catering for British Airways and was perfectly happy with his son's decision, declaring "I don't mind what you do as long as you don't go into catering", warning him that it was a difficult business.
"As soon as he said that, it was like a light went off in my brain and I thought: 'Ooh, I never thought of that'," says Clivaz.
He started his career as an apprentice chef at the Dorchester under Anton Mosimann and, despite his family's expectation that he would hate it, he loved it. He was eventually transferred to reception and then worked as a trainee manager, moving to the Plaza Athénée in Paris and then Le Meurice. He worked in Dubai and ran various restaurants, as well as for the Savoy Group, where he was managing director of Simpson's in the Strand, before eventually working for Laurence Isaacson and Neville Abraham at Groupe Chez Gérard.
Clivaz and Isaacson went on to found Home House - an informal take on a private members' club - in London's Portman Square, backed by Dragons' Den investor Richard Farleigh and others.
The Georgian building took two years to renovate and opened in 1998. The process was filmed for the BBC TV show Trouble at the Top and proved successful despite warnings from doubters who didn't think it would work in that location.
After that business was sold, Clivaz served as chief executive of the Arts Club from 2004 until 2012, when he became nonexecutive chairman of Langan's Brasserie. He is currently chief executive of L'Escargot.