There's a story about Will Smith and Anthony Demetre, from the time when they were virtual unknowns, that helps encapsulate how much the pair took the restaurant industry by surprise when they launched Arbutus in 2006.
Having acquired the Frith Street site that was to play home to the restaurant, the pair were hovering at an awards do and spotted Observer restaurant critic, and sometime-TV-star, Jay Rayner. Tentatively they approached, introduced themselves as the chef and front-of-house manager behind the former Michelin-starred restaurant Putney Bridge and explained their forthcoming concept - the site, the food, the feel and, most importantly, the accessible prices.
Rayner (probably) took a long slurp of his Long Island iced tea, paused, then asked: "And you intend to keep the prices the same in the long term?". Cue nodding heads and eager yeses from Smith and Demetre. "Well, we'll see," replied the floppy haired critic.
True to their word, four years down the road a lunch at the Michelin-starred Arbutus costs £16.95; a £1.45, inflation-minded increase on the prices in their opening week.
It goes to show that when Smith and Demetre have a concept in mind, they tend to stick to it. Of course, the blueprints behind Arbutus and their second restaurant, Wild Honey in Mayfair, were stringently adhered to because - put simply - they were fantastically popular with the dining public. Now the pair are faced with what is arguably their biggest challenge since Arbutus opened - continuing that popularity in their new Covent Garden restaurant, Les Deux Salons.
The two-floor, William IV Street site - acquired from chain Pitcher & Piano - is being stocked, polished and tweaked when we meet. The 14 years they've worked together certainly tells. In conversation they work much like a single unit - a married couple, you might even say - finishing each other's sentences, interjecting over one another, both pushing an answer to its natural conclusion. How many characteristics will Les Deux Salons share with Arbutus and Wild Honey?
"Whatever we do will be the same mantra," starts Demetre before Smith glides in and the pair bat the answer back and forth.
"The same ethos…"
"A real sense of occasion…"
"Relaxed informality, hospitality…"
"What we both like."
The concept, put simply, is for a two-floor Parisian brasserie, dealing in the same refined, Gallic-influenced bistro fare as Arbutus and Wild Honey. Set over two floors, a lot of effort has gone into the timeless, aged brasserie look. From the fogged mirrors to a ceiling colour that must be labelled "Nicotine White" in the Dulux range, everything has been designed to look like it has been in place for quite some time. Green banquettes and dark wood furniture abound, while underfoot, two million pieces of tile have gone into the stunning mosaic floor. "We wanted a grand Parisian brasserie," explains Smith. "We felt there was definitely a gap in the market for that sort of thing."
There's certainly a gap in the Covent Garden market, an area heavy with tourist-hungry chains, but was the concept fit to the site or was the site sought out with this concept in mind?
"We're not confined to French cuisine," answers Demetre.
"Not at all," continues Smith. "We looked at something in the City that was going to be a different concept, but that didn't work out."
"Then we looked at something on Jermyn Street that was going to be Italiany but the timing with the economy wasn't great."
"Then this came along and it seemed to fit perfectly."
A brasserie-style menu at the new site deals in the likes of beef tartare (£7.95), lamb gigot steak (£16.50) and slow-cooked ox cheeks with parsnip purée (£17.95). Like Arbutus and Wild Honey, the key is offering an option at every price point, and the menu deals in dishes from a £12 burger to a plat du jour to a double veal chop for two persons, priced at £23.50 a head. The anticipated average spend will be £35, maybe £40, per head, the pair say. "We're right in the heart of it," says Smith. "They'll be tourists, even Londoners in tourist mode, and if you want to pick up that business you've got to be approachable."
Filling the 150 seats at Les Deux Salons won't necessarily be hard - an estimated 20,000 people walk past the building every day. "You see them come in waves," explains Smith. "A train arrives in Charing Cross, around the corner, and a fresh wave comes past."
At double the seats of both Arbutus and Wild Honey, it's certainly a much bigger beast. The front-of-house staff will total 25 and the kitchen brigade 25 - at the time of interview, only half the chefs had been recruited. Except for the head chefs, all of the chefs at Arbutus, Wild Honey and now Les Deux Salons move between kitchens - keeping the chefs "flexible" says Demetre, and not letting them get too comfortable and, therefore, lax in their day-to-day routines. Demetre himself will split his time mainly between Arbutus and Wild Honey, mainly just helping Johnson develop the menu at Les Deux Salons, which will change every six weeks.
Maybe because of the building's size, the pair dodge questions of whether the site is more of a financial gamble than Arbutus or Wild Honey, but it's not hard to read between the lines.
"It's a different gamble from those two," says Smith. "Arbutus was a gamble in every way. People in the industry heard of the location and asked ‘why are you opening there? It's a terrible street, a terrible site and everything that's opened there has failed'."
"Plus it was the first time putting our own money into a restaurant," continues Demetre. "It was a massive risk - you start questioning yourself and your own ability."
What about this one? "It's a big challenge," answers Smith.
Luckily for the pair, they go into this third venture synonymous with a style of dining that - more than anything else - captured the zeitgeist in 2006, and continues to do so as times have become more austere. Arbutus's informal, unfussy ethos, backed up by very capable cooking - which adeptly utilises cheaper cuts to keep prices down - was born out of the pair's frustration at the inescapable formality of top-end dining.
"In the last days of Putney Bridge [which closed in 2005] - yeah the food was brilliant and the service was top-end but…" says Demetre.
"It was so wrong," continues Smith.
"Yeah, it was so wrong. We looked at each other and said ‘If we were out on a Saturday night, is this the place we'd like to come?'. The answer was no."
When planning Arbutus, they sat down and did away with everything that was deemed as unnecessary style. Fancy crockery, fancy cutlery, fancy service, right up to the water glasses - all of it went back to basics.
At the cornerstone of both Arbutus and Wild Honey is the restaurants' widely praised attitude to wine, where every bottle of the 55-strong wine list is available in a 250ml carafe. The concept - which will appear on Les Deux Salons' 45-strong wine list - has been now widely copied throughout the capital, but why the sudden mimicry?
"It was an idea that was so blatantly obvious," says Demetre.
"I think it's that people were…"
"Afraid," interjects Demetre.
"Yeah, they were afraid. Afraid of opening a £100 bottle of wine and having to throw it away."
"The difference is, other establishments are selling the kind of wines we are, but their lists are so long and they have just one person selling the wine. We did away with a sommelier. All our staff sell - they're upstairs now doing a tasting. They know about the list and they can sell to the customer."
Another feature of the Arbutus and Wild Honey launches being replicated in Les Deux Salon is the soft opening. At both restaurants, the pair offered diners 50% off the menu in the first week in return for patience with any glitches in service or food. Such is the reputation that precedes the two of them, the 500-covers they were offering at half-price booked out in 45 minutes.
"The point is, we don't expect people to be paying top dollar for our mistakes," explains Demetre. "We use the week to iron them out then open properly - an order printer printing out elsewhere, those kind of teething problems."
Does the restaurant lose money in that opening week? "We cover our costs," replies Smith. "It's something that has to be done. If you open full price from day one there shouldn't be any mistakes."
When Les Deux Salons is up and running, then what? More sites? The pair have already admitted that they would consider opening other concepts - but are there any concrete plans in place? Is there even a big strategy? The answers are, again, non-specific, although it's easy to see that nothing has been ruled out.
"No matter how many restaurants we have, we won't be drawn away from the stove or from front of house," says Smith. "That's when you hire people to look after the paperwork, the office stuff." The most important thing, they agree, is not to take their eye off the ball at Arbutus and Wild Honey. "They are the bedrock of our business," says Smith. "They're the Michelin star holders, the award winners, it's vital we maintain the quality there."
Even four years on, the pair are only just coming to terms with the popularity of those first two openings. On stepping down from his role as editor of the Michelin Guide earlier this month, Derek Bulmer, in conversation with Caterer, name-checked Arbutus as one of his favourite restaurants. The pair's reaction?
"It was hugely flattering," says Demetre. "He's someone who understands not only great food, but what customers are looking for. It means he really gets it; he gets what we're about. Sometimes, when we look at Arbutus we have to pinch ourselves that, four years on, it's still popular and still packed every night. It's unbelievable."
Even if they struggle to believe their own success, whatever promises Les Deux Salons has in store, it's best not to underestimate it.
Anthony Demetre: chef-owner Before joining Putney Bridge as head chef in 1998, Demetre could count on his CV stints at Lucknam Park, Harvey's with Marco Pierre White, the Castle hotel in Taunton and the Greenhouse in London with Gary Rhodes, La Tante Claire in Chelsea with Pierre Koffmann, as well as spells under Bruno Loubet at Bistrot Bruno in Soho and L'Odeon where he met Will Smith, before the two joined Putney Bridge together.
After parting ways with the restaurant in 2005 in order to find their own premises, the two opened Arbutus in Soho in 2006, following it up with Wild Honey in 2007 and Les Deux Salons in October 2010.
Will Smith: owner Smith first studied geography at Kingston University, before following it up with a diploma in hotel management at Manchester Polytechnic, sponsored by the hotel company Swallow Group. He began his career at Swallow in 1991, before moving to Cameron House in Scotland in 1994 and then Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. In 1996, he switched to restaurants, joining Bruno Loubet's L'Odeon in Piccadilly, where he met Demetre and swiftly rose to restaurant manager.
After following Demetre to Putney Bridge in 1998, his career has run concurrently with the chef's. In 2008, the pair picked up the Catey for Independent Restaurateur of the Year.
Craig Johnson: head chef After leaving catering college in 2000, Johnson had a two-year spell at the Lanesborough before joining Putney Bridge as a chef de partie, rising up to sous chef at Arbutus and now head chef at Les Deux Salons.
Robert Byrne: general manager Byrne started his career at River Café and moved with Theo Randall when the chef set up alone at the Intercontinental hotel. He then spent three years away from the restaurant floor, working for online reservations site Live Booking, before returning to the industry as general manager at Les Deux Salons.
LES DEUX SALONS: MENU AND WINE LIST
MENU Autumn wild mushrooms and Clarence Court poached egg on toast, £8.95
Warm salt cod brandade, sauté of young squid, parsley cromesqui, £8.95
Ravioli of rosé veal, fresh goats' curd, cavolo nero, £8.95
Cornish plaice stuffed with shrimps and kaffir lime, £18.50
Roast halibut with razor clams, £21.50
Belly of pork petit salé, lentils and autumn vegetables, £16.95
Classic vanilla crème brûlée £5.95
Pain perdu with Cox apples, £5.95
Cold chocolate and hazelnut fondant, £5.95
RED WINES Tempranillo Puerto de Santo" Bodegas Moya, Castilla y Leon, Spain 2008 (750ml bottle/250ml carafe), £14.50/£4.75
Arlewood Shiraz, Margaret River, 2007, £40/£13.50
Cabernet Sauvignon Artemis, Stags Leap, Napa, California 2007, £95/£34.75
WHITE WINES Trebbiano, Malvasia, Allegri, Salento, Puglia 2009, £14.50/£4.75
Welcombe Hills, Hollow Meadow, Warwickshire 2009, £34/£11.50
Puligny Montrachet, Le Trezin Domaine Marc Colin, Burgundy 2007, £90/£30