The past two years has seen the National Theatre undertake a huge revamp of its food and beverage operation, with four new restaurants and bars open at its London South Bank location.Tom Vaughan meets the people who want to make it a foodie as well as theatre destination
My ambition is to make my food more memorable than the show," smiles the National Theatre's executive chef Simon Flint, to the horror of his colleague Mark Simpson. "‘As memorable as the show', I think we should say for the article," interjects the theatre's head of catering. "We want to
make the food as memorable as the show."
House is the headline-grabber of the new outlets - a stylish update of the first-floor space where former restaurant Mezzanine used to be, boasting a swish new bar and a well-priced menu of British dishes. Then there's Kitchen, an all-day café facing onto the South Bank; a bar, the Understudy; and Green Room, an offsite collaboration with local social enterprise Coin Street Community Builders (see panel).
Four sites, all in the space of a year; what was the motivation for such an extensive revamp?
"They have come at a time when the Arts Council funding has been spread around and the National Theatre has seen some cuts, so it needs to find some more commercial operations to bring in revenue, and areas such as catering need to be much more sustainable," says Simpson. "So we have looked at ways of opening up foyer space that was only used by theatregoers, to make it more of a destination."
The heart of the plan was to make better use of the theatre's position beside Queen's Walk, South Bank, now a thriving foodie destination.
"It was an opportunity to shift the focus of the building towards the river, because when the building was designed, Queen's Walk hadn't been built and the focus was towards the bridge," explains Simpson. Kitchen and the Understudy both fill spaces that were previously used to store the bins and
for deliveries. They open out onto South Bank, taking advantage of the estimated 25 million people who pass by every year. However, keeping up with the area's competition - which comprises everything from street food vendors to fine-dining ventures such as Skylon - was the primary goal.
"The offers are very much designed to take on the competition," says Simpson. "We wanted to develop a portfolio of independentfeeling restaurants rather than a load of high street brands."
Value for money
Pop-up bar Propstore, which ran on the South Bank during the summers of 2012 and 2013, offered the perfect opportunity to test ideas and concepts: "A lot of what we learnt we fed in to the Understudy and Kitchen," says Simpson.
A key part of taking on the opposition was value for money, with all four operations pitched to draw in customers who aren't just there to see theatre.
"We want a reputation for being good value. We want the Understudy to be a good value place to drink compared with the other places on South Bank, and the coffee we serve to be of good value and good quality. It was really important to us," says Simpson, who worked at Charlton House and Stamford Bridge stadium before joining the National six years ago.
No better is this demonstrated than at House, where customers can enjoy a three-course meal for an average spend of around £30 (excluding wine).
"When places do a pre- or post-theatre set menu, they do it with cuts of meat like bacon steak. We do a menu with line-caught cod and halibut," says Flint.
"We need to compete with the South Bank and its high street restaurants. So the menu has something on it for everyone with lots of price points. Someone could come in and have a seafood linguine or the full works with a côte de boeuf."
Delivering a full menu in the hour and a half before the curtain rises presents its own challenges, which necessitates Flint beefing out his team to ensure they deliver on time (see panel). All the while, the restaurant still has to wash its own face.
"It's still a profitable restaurant," says Simpson. "It's not like we are taking a big hit on GP; we just believe it's the right thing to do."
At present, the restaurant does 90 covers pre-theatre then another 50 after 7.30pm, but how do they plan to convince South Bank footfall that their best option lies inside the National?
"That's a new thing, really," answers Flint. "We are getting press in, doing different theme nights, there's lots of promotion going on. We're aiming for 170 covers a night but anything near 200 would be perfect."
To its guests the National is more than just a theatre, says Simpson, and its restaurants need to reflect this.
"We have a huge membership and people feel like it is their theatre - some come to 15 productions a year and eat at the restaurant each time. It's their local, effectively. They set a very high standard and they expect every one of our outlets to be as good as what they see on stage. If not, they will tell us about it."
One of the most endearing qualities of the theatre is its resourcefulness and use of its internal teams. There was never a question of the catering being contracted out.
"We wanted to keep that connection to the organisation," says Simpson. "The people behind this project have the National Theatre's interests at heart."
Not only does Flint's team of 74 chefs - spread across seven kitchens - make almost everything on site, from bread to soft drinks such as ginger beer and lemonade, but the props teams help make furniture for the restaurants, and the waiting staff, many of whom are actors themselves, double up as event entertainment. In fact, one of the restaurants' core strengths is the waiters' ability to engage the theatregoing customers, says Simpson.
However, does hiring staff that are actors first and waiting staff second mean there is a skills deficit?
"We'd rather have fantastic personalities and then train the skills," says Simpson. "You have to work at it, but all the waiters are so proud of the National Theatre and that shows in the service."
Green Room was the last of the four projects to launch this week. After such a busy year, what next?
"Our immediate priority is settling all these operations down," says Simpson. "In order for them to be sustainable, they need to be busy throughout the day and we need to develop them as destinations. After that, next summer we'll be looking at what we can do outside on the South Bank to attract more people to the National Theatre and tell the world we are here." Listen up, world.
Hitting the curtain call
While most restaurateurs can try to pace diners throughout the evening, House doesn't have that luxury. Not only does the restaurant team have to serve 90 diners between the 6.10pm to 7.10pm 'mad hour', as Flint calls it, but they do so offering Á la carte, rather than making life easier for
themselves with a set menu.
This challenge doesn't tone down the ambition of the food.
"We almost don't allow it to restrict us," says Flint. "We have a conversation about it once a month - shall we make the menu less ambitious? And we always say no. What we do instead is have more staff than we should have, in terms of the revenue of the restaurant. We commit to that so the food is served at a really high standard and fast."
Six chefs work each service at House, but the key to getting theatregoers fed, watered and to their play on time is all in the mise en place.
"We choose our dishes carefully," says Flint. "A great example of that is we cure our own salmon with whisky - when it comes to the customer ordering it we just have to do four slices. Same with the chicken liver parfait - it is marinated overnight in port and madeira and cooked really slowly and then into kilner jars. When the customer orders all we have to do is put the jar on the plate and cook some toast."
The Deck: National Theatre Events
As well as a cavernous interior, the National Theatre is blessed with the Deck - a rooftop events space that can accommodate 150 standing guests and 80 seated. As well as hosting corporate events, the Deck puts on public events to attract guests to the National - this summer it featured a pop-up cinema and a performance of One Man, Two Guvnors, while two years ago it featured a pop-up restaurant called Teatro de Alimentos.
Even more creative, this Christmas the space is being transformed into a Narnia-inspired wonderland for hireable events. As with the rest of the National, there is a strong ethos of using internal resources.
"We believe in doing everything in-house, from lighting to menus to set design," explains Charlie Taylor-Smith, head of hospitality events and commercial business development. Taylor-Smith is also responsible for setting up the NT Talent Database - a resource that contains details of all the National's staff and their various skillsets. So, while waiters may be hired for the restaurants, many are aspiring actors, musicians and entertainers and are called upon to add life to the Deck's events.
"Staff sometimes even get together to form bands," says Taylor-Smith. "A waiter might find they are running the floor one day and performing for an event the next."
The full cast of new National Theatre outlets House
The crown jewel of the National's four new revamped offerings, the stylish fine-diner House replaces Mezzanine - the restaurant that previously occupied the space.
"House is about updating our restaurant and giving it a current but classic feel, creating a more modern space," says Simpson. The concrete walls of the mezzanine room still take centre stage, offset by low-hanging lighting and charcoal banquettes, which divide up the large space. The restaurant is fully booked prior to most performances, and does about 85 covers before 7.30pm, plus an additional 50 afterwards, a number Simpson and Flint both hope to increase.
Dishes Steak tartare with toast (£7.50), octopus smoked over applewood chips with seasonal bean salad (£8.50), flat-iron steak with fries (£13.50), osso bucco ravioli (£16.75), praline hazelnut éclair with praline ice-cream (£6.50).
Opened in a ground floor space that opens out onto South Bank, which used to house the theatre's bins, Kitchen is a new all-day-dining café open from 8am to 8pm. As well as serving coffee, sandwiches and cakes (all home-made), the 117-seat café, which includes a large alfresco space will offer a menu of light dishes.
"Kitchen is about trying to serve restaurantstyle food in a cafe," explains Flint.
Half a baked grapefruit with light brown muscovado sugar (£2.50), fontina and spinach French toast (£5), corned beef and chorizo hash with a fried egg (£5.25), burnt aubergine, confit peppers with poached egg and spiced Tuscan sausage (£7).
A new South Bank-facing bar that sits next to Kitchen. The focus is on craft beer, and the National Theatre has teamed up with Greenwich brewery Meantime to offer a selection of its beers on draught, as well as picks from across London's new wave of microbreweries.
Meantime Brewery Fresh Lager (brewed in Greenwich), Fourpure Pilsner (Bermondsey), Redchurch Bethnal Pale Ale (Hackney), Hammerton (Islington), Pressure Drop (Hackney).
The Green Room
The one new outlet not launched under the NT Futures scheme, but a collaboration with social enterprise Coin Street Community Builders, who built a temporary restaurant on wasteland behind the theatre - which will be developed in five years time - and approached the National to run it. The idea is a sustainably led operation, focusing on English ingredients and a casual diner approach.
"We've called it an English diner," says Flint. "I think we're the first to coin that phrase, aren't we?"
Salt cod croquettes with chunky tartar sauce (£5.50), grilled mackerel bruschetta with tomato and chipotle salsa (£8.50), Rostra dog, a house special spiced sausage, caramelised onions, home-made ketchup, and Monterey Jack cheese sauce (£10.50), flatiron steak with green peppercorn sauce (£13.50).