At the crack of dawn in Soho, Jason Holmes met up with Will Smith, the co-owner of Arbutus, a bistro that has for the past six years firmly established itself as one of the best places to eat in London's West End
"By 10.30 in the morning my mind's firmly on the restaurant," says Will Smith, before sitting down and repositioning a heavy pair of black framed spectacles upon his nose. He's dapper and contained. Our glasses of water gleam under the restaurant lights. He places a cappuccino before me and offers me a bowl of sugar and a small silver spoon. "I have to ensure I get in before my staff arrives, so I'm here at eight most mornings." Outside a solitary taxi sweeps past. The early morning London light is weak and yellowed. Pigeons sleep undisturbed upon sills.
Smith co-owns Arbutus on Frith Street with his business partner and head chef Anthony Demetre. The two of them also own Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden and Wild Honey in Mayfair, but Arbutus possesses a cachet all its own, mainly because of its location. "Soho's edgy," says Smith. "Arbutus opened in May 2006 and seats about 70 to 75 people. We're still going strong." He stirs his coffee as I check that the dictaphone is working. If Smith isn't bleary-eyed, I am. He's used to getting up this early.
In 2007, Arbutus won a Michelin star for its affordable and seasonal food. "It's the bistro's affordability which has seen it weather these tough economic times," he says.
"We have about 125 staff across all three restaurants.
"Anthony Demetre is the kitchen man! He's the chef. I'm the front of house person and I look after the running of the business. We have a private investor, an unnamed person, who Anthony and I have known for 15 years. And of course we have the bank! Our investor was a regular guest of ours and we got to know him and he had faith in us and was willing to put his neck on the block, because restaurants can be... well, they come and go, don't they!"
They certainly do. Smith laughs when I suggest that Londoners are a fickle bunch who, if they decide they are bored of the food you are serving them, will vote with their feet and walk to the next new eaterie around the corner.
"What's the old adage? "How do you make a small fortune? Start with a large fortune and then open a restaurant." Because believe me, they can drain your resources," he says.
"Restaurants usually fail because they're not appropriate for the market they're in. They're ill conceived. When we were refurbishing the Arbutus premises, a dentist, upstairs in the building, who'd been operating there for 45 years, popped his head in and said "I don't know why you're wasting your money, because I've seen 20 restaurants come and go in 40 years". I really didn't need to hear that.
"Prior to us, a restaurant called Tartufo was on that site which was an Italian restaurant run by a husband and wife team, and it was OK for what it was. They were doing what they were doing. Like so many other small Italian restaurants in Soho, they were offering an everyday type of stuff.
"And with Little Italy down the road, which has a good reputation, it didn't help our prospects.
"Where we are, at the top end of Frith Street by Soho Square, is not the best place for a restaurant, either because all the crowds are down by Old Compton Street or because Soho is a bit more edgy and fine dining hasn't traditionally done well here."
I make a question mark of my face. What about L'Escargot (Greek Street), Quo Vadis (Dean Street) or Richard Corrigan's Lindsay House on Romilly Street? "Things have changed," he nods. "Quo Vadis is on five floors, has private rooms and a club, so I assume they do OK now," says Smith, "but Soho has always called for smaller places that are a bit more relaxed and intimate."
Smith gazes around the empty restaurant. "There are very few places with table clothes in Soho! People want things a bit edgier here.
"Anthony and I come from fine dining backgrounds, latterly having run a restaurant in Putney, the Putney Bridge Restaurant, which was at the startline of the boat race. It may have worked in Mayfair, but it wasn't working in Putney. The chain restaurants in Putney like Wagamama and Carluccio's were working, but we weren't, so we thought we'd keep offering great food and great service but pitch it at a more affordable price, strip out the unnecessaries, like a huge wine list, or extremely expensive bespoke leather wine list covers, all those cover plates that no one actually uses - they cost £40 each by the way! - very expensive crystal, silverware, menus which cost a fortune to print, a team of sommeliers, dispense with the amuse-bouche [which often confused diners) and pre-desserts. All these things added up! And it just wasn't profitable.
"There'll always be a market for these things, but at our time in Putney they were inappropriate for the market there. If people wanted fine dining in Putney and Fulham, they'd come to the West End, so we shut up shop there and re-opened in Soho in 2006.
"With Arbutus, on which we spent a bit, but not too much, it was much simpler, with no table clothes, plain bare walls and a couple of pieces of art, and good but much cheaper glassware. A menu was printed daily on a piece of A4 paper. We placed 50 wines on the list instead of 200. We pared our offer down to the bone without losing quality. We spent £600,000 on the Arbutus refit. We stripped out the kitchen and bought the lease from the previous holders then opened on a shoestring.
"Anthony specialises in using cheaper cuts and cheaper food items, and then turns them into something quite special.
"But if you use premium products of premium quality, you have to sell them at a premium price, which is not appropriate right now due to people being cash strapped, so instead, for example, we use a skirt steak - what the French call a bavette - which is now ubiquitously used in restaurants.
"We also use earthy, rustic cuts like pig's heads or stuffed hearts.
But what of the discerning diner's taste? 'You can't fool a Londoner,' quips Smith. 'Our style is rooted in French cooking, but there are hints of Englishness, sometimes Italian and North African, Spanish too. So it's Anthony's personal taste and what we feel is appropriate and what will work in the market. Our menu is therefore much more affordable.
"Our policy has never been one of squeezing the guest. It's about producing a great deal so that a customer comes back and becomes a regular.
"Five or six years ago we were trailblazers, because no-one else was doing that. There were very few Michelin chefs who were stepping back from fine dining and going into "the bistro thing". But now more and more [restaurateurs] are doing that.'
So what makes them succeed in a market as unforgiving and exacting as London?
'If you're grafting away for seven days a week and it's a loss-making business, there is no point. Yeah, we love cooking, but it has to survive as a business. It has to be commercial.
'London diners are the most savvy in the country because they have such a choice. Eight years ago you'd have spent a lot of money to eat well in London, but not now.
'At Arbutus you can spend £60 or £70 for two people and have a great meal too.
We're competing with other food outlets in Soho, from Pret A Manger to the Dean Street Townhouse and Duck Soup, also on Dean Street, so we have to be "on it" all the time.
'We're aware of our clientele. They can be a fickle bunch, so we can't be complacent. We cannot let things slip because customers can tweet instant reviews at the table. It's the new hobby!
'Do you tweet?' Smith asks me suddenly.
'Well, as I matter of fact, I need to now,' I reply. 'Where are the lavatories?'
When I return, I suggest he shouldn't worry about the new 'churnalism' produced by the unlettered among us, which produces a laugh.
'The economic downturn has meant places are closing, but the general standard [in restaurants] is improving,' he says. 'The likes of AA Gill are important, but to what extent he is to us, well...that's a moot point. He said he'd have made Arbutus restaurant of the year if it hadn't been for all the media types.
'But to begin with Anthony and I didn't want a Soho patch, more a West End patch. People in the industry said we'd fail, but we were confident in our cooking and presentation.'
When asked if they are experiencing a fall off in custom, Smith nods. 'From April 2011, we started to feel the squeeze of the economic downturn, but we're not worried because we're tight with our margins and our payroll, and we benefit from all the London tourism. And with five-yearly rent reviews, we are stable in Soho.
'We have to be careful. The biggest mistake a restaurateur can make is when he goes off on a flight of fancy, or when he can't hold himself to a budget. The project will fail if it is not commercial.
'It's hard to say what one thing forces a restaurant to close. It's usually a combination of things. But you have to be able to adapt to changing socio-economic conditions to survive. Anthony and I are hands-on owners and it's important to stay on our toes.'
I suggest running a restaurant is a little like plate spinning, as management and staff are run off their feet as they attempt to keep every single customer well fed, watered and happy. 'Very much so,' says Smith. 'It's very hard to recruit good staff. And finding a "natural" in the kitchen is extraordinarily difficult. Similarly, on the restaurant floor, someone with the "hospitality gene" is very hard to find. If we find someone with the ability to make customers smile while looking after them, we make sure we hold on to them.
'Ninety per cent of the staff in the hospitality sector in the UK are non-British, and so if I get a British CV sent to me, I interview them straight away because there are obvious cultural advantages, not least because they can speak the language of the bulk of our customers. Communication in Arbutus is essential.
'But it's problematic that we're just giving our jobs away in this country. I went into Pret for a coffee and no-one is British in there. It's a shame. There's no reason why we cannot fill our restaurants with British staff....But perhaps they don't have the mentality for it. I'm not sure they like serving! Or the long hours! The Brits have lost their work ethic. My guys come in here at 9am and finish at 1am the following day. Brits won't work that kind of shift.'
But what of the English love affair with food? 'I do think the English palate is now an educated one. Certainly here in London. The choice of restaurants is so wide and people are more demanding than ever and insistent upon receiving quality service and fare.'
On expansion, Smith says: 'If you haven't got a big enough team, you can't do it. If you spread your hand-picked team across into a new venture, you ruin what you've spent so long getting right, and all in the hope of the new venture perhaps working out. It's hard to find a good new head chef or head waiter at the best of times, too!'
So expanding without forethought is, if you excuse the pun, a recipe for disaster?
'Yes! I want to achieve longevity, and not make a quick killing. Arbutus is individualistic and personal. We don't want to be a Strada.
'In Soho, Dean Street Townhouse is a great place to be for its hospitality. The Wolseley is wonderful for the theatre of the place. Even just having a coffee and croissant there for breakfast is a lovely experience. I have huge admiration for Chris Corbin and Jeremy King [owners of the Wolseley and directors of Rex Restaurants Associates], because they can show you what can be done with a restaurant. Russell Norman of Polpo and Polpetto has a great head for business by bringing a taste of New York to London.
'But we at Arbutus - and of course across our other two restaurants, Les Deux Salons and Wild Honey - are about food, not gimmicks. We change our menu every three months.
'Anthony has to think more and is very inventive when he writes the menus and directs our three head chefs, but they are allowed to extemporise if need be, depending on the availability and quality of produce. Anthony is an excellent chef who tries to keep it simple, fresh and flavoursome. Most chefs always say that, I know, but I believe he actually achieves it. People prefer simplicity and, I believe, have grown tired of the "celebrity" chef that was in vogue, and, of course, still is, to some extent.
'Arbutus is a great local bistro. Our lunch menu is £17.95 for three courses, which is real value as well. What's not to like?' asks Smith.
'Nothing at all,' I answer. 'Except perhaps the media types.' But I only think that last part and swig down my cappuccino with a grin.
© Jason Holmes 2012 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
63-64 Frith Street, London W1D 3JW, United Kingdom
020 7734 4545
Follow Jason Holmes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JasonAHolmes