The secret of Russell Norman's restaurants

06 June 2011 by
The secret of Russell Norman's restaurants

After so successfully capturing the zeitgeist with his first two restaurants, Polpo and Polpetto, restaurateur Russell Norman has done it again with newcomer Spuntino and looks set to land another winner with forthcoming site da Polpo. What's his secret? Tom Vaughan reports

Russell Norman is hunched up and bent, playing a wheezy Al Pacino: "Russell," he says, mimicking advice from an American friend. "What's important is not the steak. What's important is the sizzle." Sitting in his Soho restaurant Polpo, the sizzle is almost deafening. The place is abuzz: tables of Soho types comparing notes, the steamy gurgle of the coffee machine and a stream of tattooed waiters dishing up cicheti. The noise almost drowns Norman out.

"I can't wait for Spuntino," he says, talking about his eagerly anticipated new restaurant, which at the time of our conversation was due to open in a fortnight. "And you know what, some people are going to hate it and some people are going to slag it off. But there will also be enough people who are going to love it."

Unsurprisingly, for those familiar with his first two restaurants Polpo and Polpetto, the dining public quickly fell for Spuntino. On visiting in its opening week, in mid-March, punters were happily queueing for an hour to get a stool at the 26-seat bar, set amid the glorious vestiges of a Victorian butcher's shop. Between the low-hung Edison lightbulbs and bustling waiters, diners knock back plates of mac ‘n' cheese and £2 shots of Scotch as a 1950s blues soundtrack sets their Friday night alive. If anything, the sizzle outstrips Polpo.

Inexpensive, informal and stylish
It's the same story all over again. When Norman launched self-styled Venetian bacaro Polpo in September 2009, alongside business partner, entrepreneur and friend Richard Beatty, diners took it swiftly to their bosoms. Inexpensive, informal and stylish - with stripped-back decor displaying the former townhouse's heritage - it captured the mood among a dining public neck-deep in the worst recession since World War Two. With a no-reservations policy and a laid-back vibe, it managed to be very cool without being at all exclusive - a hard trait to pull off.

Originally a one-off, the Polpo brand is to extend to three sites next month when da Polpo launches on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden, joining Polpo and Polpetto, a bijou version above the French House pub in Soho. Larger and lighter than Polpo - although still with the same no reservations at dinner policy - da Polpo will feature a menu similar to its parent site, although with some variations on the meatball and cicheti theme.

Drawing from New York's dining scene
While Polpo's provenance lies in the wine bars of Venice and New York, Spuntino draws its heritage from New York's diner scene: "Imagine a classic American diner - set in the 1950s," says Norman. "But throw it back another 70 years to a time which we'd call Victorian but Americans call the machine age; that's what I want Spuntino to be like."

Boasting just 26 covers around a central bar, also with a no-reservations policy (there's not even a telephone) and a special area to queue, the food references Italy via New York.

"The menu is dishes we think of as American, but the subtext is they're really Italian. Meatballs? They're not really meatballs, they're polpette. Mac and cheese? It's not really mac and cheese, it's carbonara. It's American classics based on the Italian originals."

Why so much inspiration from New York? Is it a way of saying their dining scene is superior to our own? "I actually think it is," answers Norman. "I think it is six to 10 years ahead of ours. We suffer from the fact that our restaurants evolved from hotel dining rooms. The origin of restaurants in New York is the diner. It's a lot more casual and fun, with no emphasis on taking reservations."

Deciding to replicate this reservations policy at Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino and now da Polpo was a hard decision, Norman says. "People see reservations as future business, a contract saying you'll have business in two weeks time. But I told Richard that we have to be brave in the short term and the customers will reward us. I was terrified but it was the right thing to do."

While food and decor makes up a lot of the charm behind Norman's sites, there is a lot to be said for his staffing policy. When Polpo launched, he advertised on the internet for waiters, making it known he would place more emphasis on attitude than experience. A laid-back approach to uniform - waiters only need wear an apron, which they can fashion in any way they choose - and a convivial, cool atmosphere soon attracted a younger, more creative breed of waiter. The result is that service takes on a much more characterful appearance, with tattoos and piercings on show. Norman, meanwhile, has never had to advertise since those early days, with people now queuing up to work in his restaurants.

Securing the site for Spuntino
Spuntino had been a long time coming. Rumours have circulated for the best part of a year now that Norman was to launch a second concept in Soho's Rupert Street. The protracted opening was down to hassle around the site's lease: "It was a very stressful pre-lease status," says Norman. "We were chasing it for the best part of a year. The previous tenants were somewhat unreliable and there were lots of broken promises."

In the end, Norman and Beatty acquired the Maiden Lane site as a back-up plan, only for Rupert Street to finally come good. As a result the wheels were set in motion for da Polpo, which is set to launch on 2 June.

When the keys finally did arrive for Rupert Street, Norman could hardly contain himself, smashing through the green plaster walls like a shaggy-haired treasure hunter, uncovering the vestiges of an old butcher or fishmonger: glazed white bricks, ornate arches and two feet of extra space above the ceiling panels.

Going it alone in a recession
Restaurant designer is a new quality on Norman's impressive CV. With his Fergus Henderson glasses and shaggy-chic attire, it is hard these days to imagine him sitting on the board as the director of operations at Caprice Holdings, a position he once assumed he'd retire in. "I would have loved to do what I'm doing now within Caprice Holdings, but it didn't really fit in with the company. I wanted to do this austerity project and they were on a trajectory to open more restaurants like Scott's."

Keen to go it alone, Norman resigned his position in November 2008 (very amiably, he is keen to point out), one month after Lehman Brothers went bust. Bad timing? Quite the opposite: "I was walking around Soho with Richard and we saw how all the places who were still busy were the cool, buzzy ones. I knew it was the right time for the kind of restaurant I wanted to do - low average spend per head, added value and relaxed service. It was a recession idea, really."

Norman might have been branching out on his own during tough economic times, but he did bring one invaluable commodity to the table; years of experience at the top of Caprice Holdings.

"It was absolutely invaluable," he explains. "It taught me discipline, that these places are businesses. It taught me you have a responsibility both to yourself and your customer, but also everyone you employ. It taught me all the back-of-house stuff: profit margins, payroll, percentages. It taught me how important it is to be on the top of each of your departments - doing daily menu tastings with the chefs, for example."

Creating that sizzle
Two years on, and with four sites soon to be under his belt, what does the future hold? "We don't have an exit strategy or long-term plan. We only have a short-to-mid-term plan and that is to keep doing what we find exciting." Are there ideas in the offing though?

"My God, yeah. I wake up at 3am to get up and write things down. I'm fizzing and popping with ideas. If we found the right site tomorrow I've got a fantastic concept that I haven't seen anywhere that, when it's open, will look like it's been there forever and a day, and will be exciting and inexpensive and rammed."

The immediate future, though, is focused on Spuntino and da Polpo, and ensuring they are every bit as lively and relaxed as the public expect. "As a restaurateur, you have a responsibility to offer more than just the food," says Norman, returning to his American friend's advice. "You have a responsibility to create a buzz, to create a sizzle."

Russell Norman on opening a restaurant

  1. Stick with what you like You've got no way of knowing what people will like; you only really know what you like. That has to be your starting point. Don't open a sashimi bar because you see Japanese restaurants doing well - it will fail. However, if you are hugely into Japanese food, have visited Tokyo several times, go to all the Japanese openings and dream about mackerel sashimi, maybe that's the right business for you.

2. Don't fall at the first hurdle By a long, long way one of the biggest reasons for restaurants failing is that they run out of money before they open: 80% of restaurants fail before they open. Do your sums, do them again, then get someone else to do them. Otherwise you might not even get off the ground.

3. Really know your figures Know that a wage cost of more than 30% can damage your ability to make any money at all. Know that a menu item that is too expensive can damage your ability to make money. But also don't overprice things; the public now knows the cost and the value of restaurants. The days of the fancy pants restaurant that can charge £20 for a salad are gone. Respect the customer while looking after your margins.

4. Be realistic about what you put in and take out of the business My business partner [Richard Beatty] and I didn't take anything out of the business in the first year and now take out a very modest salary each that just covers our costs, and will continue to work like that, 80 hours a week.

5. Be prepared to put on an apron and get stuck in Lots of people imagine sitting at the bar of their restaurant and welcoming in friends. You have to clear tables and pitch in. You need to go in knowing and looking forward to the fact that it will be hard work.

Hands on, stripped-back interior design
What makes Norman's restaurants all the more remarkable is that he did all the interior designs himself. In fact, so recognisable is the style he has adopted, the phrase ‘the Polpo school of design' has been coined in the press.

"When we launched Polpo, I couldn't afford a designer," explains Norman. "But I have an eye and what I didn't know I taught myself. But I'm very happy to admit that my philosophy comes from a company in New York called Avroko. They go into a client's premises, strip back as far as they can - revealing steel work, tiles, girders and let it dictate where the bar will go, where the banquettes will go."

Polpo Ltd

da Polpo
6 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7NW
Opens 2 June 2011
Covers 70
Head chef TBC
Signature dish Piadina meatball smash

Upstairs at The French House, 49 Dean Street, London W1D 5BG
Opened August 2010
Covers 28
Head chef Florence Knight
Signature dishes Cured pork shoulder and pickled pepper pizzetta; spicy pork and fennel polpette

41 Beak Street, London W1F 9SB
Opened September 2009
Covers 55
Head chef Tom Oldroyd (also group head chef)
Signature dishes Pork belly, radicchio and hazelnut; mackerel tartare

61 Rupert Street, London W1D 7PW
Opened March 2011
Covers 26
Head chef Rachel O'Sullivan
Signature dishes Mac and cheese; peanut butter and jelly sandwich

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