After masterminding the runaway success of Spanish restaurants Fino and Barrafina, Sam and Eddie Hart have turned their hand to relaunching Soho institution Quo Vadis. Tom Vaughan reports
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A little over a week ago, Quo Vadis was full of a hundred-or-so builders busying themselves with a mile-long list of tasks to get the Soho restaurant's refurbishment done on time.
Amazingly, just seven days later, the wooden frontage is down, the banquettes and lights are up and the former Marco Pierre White site, acquired by Sam and Eddie Hart last December, has transformed from hardhats and seedy banter to the chic, pseudo-art deco restaurant and private members' club the pair envisioned.
Sam and Eddie look like two well-dressed, Eton-educated queen ants, trotting around trailing wires and hardboard floors on the cusp of their biggest project to date. The £1.5m project has, suggests Eddie, "put the 82-year-old restaurant in good shape for the next 100 years". With any luck, the Harts should be seated as its custodians for a good chunk of this.
The Latin phrase quo vadis means "where are you going?". It's apt, then, that the pair's relaunch of the Soho institution should be a fresh departure for both them and the site. The building has spent most of the past eight decades as an Italian diner of various guises, while the Harts are famed for popular Soho tapas joints Fino and Barrafina. Now Quo Vadis has reopened as a British restaurant and private members' club.
While, on the face of it, the Harts' change in direction looks smart, the pair argue that they are just playing to the same strengths that made their other restaurants such huge successes. "The ethos behind the food is the same as at Barrafina and Fino," Eddie says. "We want to source the best ingredients we can and serve them simply and traditionally. From that perspective we haven't changed our ideas about how we see food."
The acquisition came about by pure chance, Eddie goes on. Towards the end of last year, the pair were thinking about a second site for Barrafina - not a bad idea, considering punters were queuing round the block to get a seat at the bar-only, no-bookings tapas restaurant. They approached a few agents and looked around some sites, but nothing suitable materialised. However, they did get chatting about Quo Vadis, at the time owned by Marco Pierre White and Jimmy Lahoud, lamenting its fall from grace.
"Because Fino and Barrafina are in Soho we always walked past Quo Vadis at lunchtime and would be mortified that there were just 10 covers in there and the head chef was smoking a fag outside the back door," Eddie explains.
Were the site available, would they be interested in it? asked the agent. They said they would be, so he made some enquiries on their behalf and in late November last year the brothers had the keys to the place. The details of the deal are bound by a confidentiality agreement but the bare bones of it are that MPW and Lahoud sold three of their sites to entrepreneurs Stephen Schaffer and Joseph Ettedgui, who, in Sam's words, "flipped Quo Vadis on to us".
The building is, in fact, four Soho townhouses knocked into one (see opposite) and the pair have grandiose plans for the whopping 8,500sq ft of floor space. The ground level will be a 90-cover restaurant; the first floor a private members' club with, Eddie says, "a bar, a pool room, wonderful artwork, a fireplace, comfy armchairs - a little bit louche but not too much". The second floor will be a mix of private members' rooms and private dining rooms.
There's a moody, art deco feel to the interior, designed by Andrew Martin Associates and based around the flashing 1930s sign that the couple have restored on the restaurant front. Panelled mirrors and a stained-glass frontage of russet and jade light up the front dining room.
The site is just round the corner from a smattering of private members' clubs, including the Gaucho Club and Soho House. What makes the pair think they'll stand out in the well-saturated private club scene?
"Of course, there are lots of private members' places in Soho but what we hope to do is just do it a bit better," Sam says. "The private members' clubs in Soho are a bit like tapas used to be a few years ago: lots of great, fun places, but with a standard of product that isn't always up to scratch. None of them have really excelled with the food or the quality of the room. On the whole, they're not run by restaurateurs, or by people who are in there on a daily basis greeting you at the door."
The simple-things-done-well formula has been so successful at Barrafina and Fino - and it fuels the pair's ambition with Quo Vadis. "We're not trying to do anything different and radical, or come up with some new concept," Sam says. "We hope to focus on the basics. A nice, neutral dining room, a menu that's in a way quite populist, and personal service, one of us greeting guests. If you tick all those boxes you'll have a very popular and busy restaurant."
Part of the praise heaped on Fino and Barrafina came because of the Harts' innate sense of hospitality. And you can see where they get it from. For the past 29 years, the siblings' parents, Tim and Stefa Hart, have run Hambleton Hall, a Relais & Ch‰teaux hotel in Rutland. They also currently own Hart's Restaurant and Hart's Hotel in Nottingham. Throughout their childhood Sam and Eddie were steeped in the values of five-star hospitality, while fed on the British-sourced cuisine of a country house hotel.
It was their mother's upbringing in Mallorca that fuelled the boys' Hispanophilia, too, but just as close to their hearts is the British culinary tradition of their parent's hotel, a zeal that finds expression in the Quo Vadis menu.
"We grew up eating the finest British ingredients," Sam says. "And after getting to grips with Spanish food and Spanish wine and Spanish culture it's exciting to go and get our teeth into something different again."
There was something serendipitous about Quo Vadis becoming available at the time it did, too. It has given the pair the chance to move from their comfort zone: "What has been joyous about this is that if we had done another Barrafina it would have been the same thing again - same wine list, same suppliers," Sam goes on. "Here we're discovering something new."
With a trend towards traditional cooking under way on the London scene - Mark Hix's two recent openings, Albemarle and the Hix Oyster & Chop House, follow hot on the heels of Great Queen Street and Hereford Road in London last year - the pair say that this style of cooking has innate appeal. "When we first acquired Quo Vadis we went for a drink with Mark," Sam says. "He was asking us what we had planned, and we were asking him what he was looking to do in Smithfield. We talked at each other then suddenly realised we had the same thing in mind. But I suppose ours and Mark's view on food is the same. There is a movement to back-to-basics food and cooking. I think they're a bit tired of fancy cuisine and want some simple nosh."
Plans for a new Barrafina are certainly on hold. The only project on the brothers' horizon is moving Quo Vadis above the opposition. Although, at some point down the line, Sam confesses, he would love to open a barbecue restaurant. "Like Barrafina but with ribs being grilled in front of you and traditional, well-cooked barbecue food," he says, wide-eyed. "No one has ever launched a product like that and done it really well." It doesn't seem much like an idea he has run past Eddie, who just stares at him quizzically.
There is certainly more than enough potential in the huge space of Quo Vadis to get it where they want it to be. They are aiming for about 80 covers at lunch and 120 at dinner, depending on the day and the season, and the restaurant should constitute about half the overall turnover. About 60 people will start on the payroll so turnover needs to be fairly high. "The building should be capable of doing £4m or £5m," Sam says. "If we manage £4m we'll be happy; if we do £5m we'll be ecstatic."
One thing the brothers can rely on when they relaunch Quo Vadis is the weight of the institution. Both Sam and Eddie have lists of friends who can remember trips to the restaurant with their fathers and it is generally well known as a Soho landmark. But with this reputation comes an extra burden. "I do feel a sense of responsibility," Eddie says. "Fino was never a restaurant before we moved in; Barrafina was a pizzeria. There was no history. When you move into somewhere that has been a restaurant for four generations you want to do it justice. But we're certainly around for the long run."
To finish on a Biblical note, the most famous use of "quo vadis" was by St Peter, who purportedly uttered it to a vision of Christ as he embraced martyrdom. Hopefully the Harts aren't sacrificing themselves too much in aid of this great London institution. The move away from the Spanish cooking that has served them so well has come as a surprise to many. Equally, taking on a restaurant that has proved so difficult in recent years is a bold move. But just to look at them, and think back on their upbringing, is to realise that few in the current market are so well suited to this site.
A short history
Quo Vadis played home to Karl Marx midway through the 19th century - in a series of rooms that were once a dingy attic apartment but are now the Hart brothers' offices. Italian immigrant Peppino Leoni was the first to establish the current name, opening Leoni's Quo Vadis in 1926. It started off as a seven-table Italian restaurant in one room, and expanded over the next 25 years. Leoni slowly bought up surrounding property, so that the restaurant eventually comprised four Soho townhouses - now all knocked together. While the food was Italian, it was a somewhat Anglicised version. "He was a shameless self-publicist and always entertaining Lord and Lady Muck," Eddie Hart says. "Leoni would have had no qualms about serving shepherd's pie if someone had wanted it. I don't think Londoners would have been quite ready for full-on Italian food back then."
After gaining notoriety as a Soho institution during Leoni's reign, the building was eventually bought by Marco Pierre White and Jimmy Lahoud in 1998, who went on to spend several million pounds sorting out structural issues with a Grade II-listed building. The food stayed as Italian but heavily influenced by Marco's French style of cooking.
The food :A typical Quo Vadis menu
- Whitebait, £6.20
- Pan-fried baby sole, £7
- Brown shrimp on toast, £7
- Colchester oysters, £8
- Scallops, £9.10
- Cold seafood platter for two, £40
- Crab linguine, £8/£16
- Ham and cheese omelette, £7.50/£14
- 28-day Lincoln Red beef with chips, rib for two, £44
- Whole roast chicken for two, £30
- Skate with capers and lemon, £18
- Summer pudding, £6.50
- Strawberries and cream, £6.50
- Treacle tart, £6
- Bitter chocolate cake, £6.50