A curious person’s guide to the Urbanspoon Top 10.

logo_5581d7fI made a mistake. Not the sort of mistake which will end up in my being sued,  but nonetheless one which I shouldn’t have made. My review of Yauatcha referred to it as being operated by that well-known restaurateur, Alan Yau. My subsequent digging around on the interweb led me to the sale of Yau’s interest in this and a number of other restaurants in a multi-million pound deal back in 2008.

It would appear that Yauatcha is now owned by Tasameen, an arm of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. I believe that they  own Hakkasan, HKK and Chrysan. From what I managed to find on the net, it would appear that Mr Yau still has a stake in the restaurants, but just how big a stake is somewhat unclear. 

There’s a fascinating interview with the CEO in HR Magazine which talks about some of the people issues involved in running a restaurant. In the interview, I spotted this:

“In the UK, Hakkasan and Yauatcha together have 650 staff, with another 350 staff overseas.”

I’ve commented elsewhere on the amount of women milling around in little red dresses in Hakkasan, but 650?

And it made me think about who owns some of London’s more popular restaurants and whether, if we knew who actually owned them,  it might influence our decision to eat at them (I give you Harris + Hoole, folks),  or at least give us pause. And I also wondered if it would yield any surprises.

So I thought that I would have a look at the 10 most recently reviewed/ blogged about restaurants on the Urbanspoon London list and see if I could find out who owns them and perhaps work out what it  meant.  And what an interesting story it is.

Number 1 Duck & Waffle

All I could find out about this, was that they are operated by an outfit trading under the name of Samba Brands Management. This is what it says on their website:

SAMBA BRANDS MANAGEMENT was founded by Shimon Bokovza, Matthew Johnson and Danielle Billera. The company operates SUSHISAMBA restaurants in New York, Miami, Chicago, Las Vegas, London and soon to open Coral Gables (March 2013). In addition to SUSHISAMBA, the group manages SUGARCANE raw bar grill in Miami and Duck & Waffle in London. With over 13 years of experience, the company continues to expand their cutting-edge concepts. Their projects are unpredictable, their venues are impressive and their visions set trends in the industry for years. As the most sought after destinations for cuisine, culture, music and design, their restaurants have garnered great critical acclaim, attracting vivacious crowds and appealing to culinary aficionados, critics and media alike.

They seem to specialise in restaurant “concepts” – as they say:

“Billera and partners introduced a new concept to the City of London, Duck & Waffle. Also located atop Heron Tower on the 40th floor, Duck & Waffle features a British and European inspired menu of sharing plates and artisanal cocktails”

I don’t feel so enthusiastic about it now. I wasn’t keen on the Sushisamba “concept” to begin with and although I very much love the 24-hour opening policy at D& W and indeed the view, I very much don’t love the pretending to be full when your restaurant is mostly empty thing that they did when I was there last time.

Number 2: Bone Daddies

This appears to be owned by an Australian, Ross Shonhan, who gave a very interesting interview about his aims here. He’s ex-head chef of Zuma and also Nobu Dallas.

I’m not sure who his backers are, if any but I like some of his ideas i.e. the upmarket Japanese steakhouse and pub – I look forward to seeing those. Given the success of Bone Daddies, I suspect that it won’t be too long.

Number 3: Burger & Lobster

This appears to be owned by the Goodman chain. From my little bit of digging around on the Internet, that chain appears to be owned by a Russian investor. There’s a very interesting piece by Jay Rayner about his meeting with that investor here. I hadn’t picked up the Russian connection – it appeared to me to be quite British in feel. I was wrong.

Number 4 : Bubbledogs

I’ve waxed lyrical about Bubbledogs before now and it was one of my most interesting restaurant experiences of 2012.  A partnership between the very talented James Knappett, and his wife, Sandia Chang, this is food as theatre from a consistently interesting and inventive chef who had me eating crispy pigs ears, no less.  A search at Duedil shows the involvment as “Director, banker”  of Jyotin Sethi,  the owner of Trishna, the well-regarded Michelin-starred Indian restaurant,  on Blandford St, whom they met whilst working at Roganic.

Number 5 : Tonkotsu

This is owned by the Tsuru chain. This was a group of three who set up the sushi and katsu chain in 2007. I immediately warmed to them, for this,  in an interview from the Londonist here:

“Emma and Ken, friends since school, came up with the idea over a pint”

We’ve all done that, haven’t we, but how many have had the courage to follow it through? And it’s just good ingredients, cooked carefully and properly. There’s a reason it’s so popular.

Number 6: Brasserie Zédel

Chris Corbin and Jeremy King need no introduction. Their restaurants are household names, not only in London but also internationally and they know how to run elegant slick restaurants that people want to be seen in. Operating under Rex Restaurant Associates, there is The Wolseley, The Delaunay, Colbert and the enormously successful Brasserie Zédel. Not to mention their history of reviving formerly grand restaurants – they made household names of Le Caprice, The Ivy and J Sheekey, before selling of much of their empire to Richard Caring.

Brasserie Zédel -a great addition to the central London dining scene – really good  value, glitzy and buzzy, it will have many imitators as it redefines what is value for money in London’s incredibly competitive dining scene.

But I’ve yet to go there and for some reason, I’m not rushing.

Number 7: Patty & Bun

You really couldn’t get more different than Brasserie Zédel if you tried with this one. Originally a pop-up, this would appear to be owned by Joe Grossman and Street Kitchen founder Mark Jankel, and is a small 30 seater, 5 minutes away from Bond Street Tube.

Part of the whole artisan/dirty/no queueing/simple menu burger vibe, this is one of the best of the bunch in my view. The chicken wings are legendary and the Ari Gold burger is a thing of beauty. It’s less frenetic than its near neighbour MeatLiquor and it’s more accessible. You still have to queue in the evenings though.

I love its “street origins” and I’m already hoping he doesn’t sell out.

Number 8: John Salt

Again, a little bit of digging around to get to the bottom of this one. Once I could get past the whole Ben Spalding issue, I managed to work out that this was owned by something called 580 Ltd which appears to be a pub group. Here’s their website

They’ve taken out a shed load of money, according to the Companies House website, to fund their new venture so I hope they do well with Neil Rankin, their new chef. I’ve had a little nosy around on the inter-web at their directors but found nothing of any real interest.

Number 9 : Ceviche

A man named Martin, originally from Peru, wanted to bring the whole Peruvian food/ceviche thing to London.

According to their website;

“After a few years of working in events, media, music and catering, being a founder member of iTunes Europe, launching Miley Cyrus and Jonas Brothers as Head of Disney Music, working with KT Tunstall and Novalima, and DJing for many years, I decided to stop what I was doing and start Ceviche.”

I expect he made enough money to do this without other backers, although we can never be sure. In any event, it looks and feels like a labour of love and even if that story turns out to be made up by a PR company, which I doubt, it makes me feel good about going there.

Number 10 :Mishkin

The name Russell Norman is legendary in London food circles. As well the highly successful Mishkin, his take on New York Jewish deli style food, he is responsible for the runaway hits that are Polpo, Polpetto and  da Polpo.(Personally, I don’t like the whole no queue-ing thing and it’s too loud for me but I’m not its target market and I think he’s a brilliant restaurateur). I love this interview from the Guardian – it tells you all you need to know.

He’s clearly a great operator – have a look at the interview with him in this book, in fact, if you’re interested in the business of restaurants I recommend that you buy it .

And so, what conclusions do I draw from all that? I know it’s just a snapshot and it could look very different next week but I think that there are some interesting things here…such as

  • Six out of the top ten appear to be fairly independent.
  • Food bloggers/critics tend to favour those sort of places hence their rankings on the Urbanspoon listings.
  • There are (happily) a number of very succesful UK-based operators in that list,  Corbin & King and Russell Norman, for starters.
  • Some operators will always be slightly unfashionable/unattractive to those who are bothered – e.g. the D&D group whose restaurants never appears in the top 10 or at least I can’t remember it happening.
  • None of the top 10 are traditional fine dining.
  • Most of the restaurants on that list are nothing like any of the others, British, French, noodle, deli, Peruvian – just further proof of the massive choice we have in London.
  • It’s still possible to start small and be a success – I love some of the start-up stories here, from people with a passion, who just keep going when I’d panic and give up.
  • I’m not sure that there are any restaurants the ownership of which would put me off in a Harris + Hoole way. I was a bit taken aback at Burger & Lobster but then again, not really surprised.
  • There’s a vibrant and dynamic food movement in the UK at the moment and it shows no sign of diminishing. This list is testament to that.

If I didn’t have a day job, I’d be able to really go to town on this. I could look at all the premises and see who owns them. I could dig away on Companies House. I think I could be quite effective as a private investigator .

The restaurant business is a community, just like the property and legal industries, in which I operate and it would be fascinating to piece the jigsaw puzzle together and see who owns what, who funds what and work out where it’s all going.

From my very limited research, I can already see that there are already many links between the property world and the food world – chefs need premises, obvious innit?  Look at Richard Caring and Arjun Waney. They already own some of the most succesful restaurants in London..  And quite a few  clients already have interests in some fairly well-known operations, either directly as investors or indirectly as Landlords.  The London   restaurant business, especially at the  top end, has thrived in the last few years, despite doom and gloom elsewhere, funded in part by all the foreign money flooding into the UK as a safe haven.  I suspect that as restaurants become even more successful and assuming that the money continues to flow, more property people will jump on the bandwagon. I do hope so. I might even end up acting for them.