London's theatreland boasts many fine eateries so the Firmdale Group's latest restaurant venture had a lot of competition. And, as Fiona Sims discovers, it took a little while to find its feet
London hoteliers Tim and Kit Kemp, founders of the Firmdale Group, always manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat. So, after a menu and staff rethink in the restaurant at their latest venture, the Haymarket - on the eponymous street around the corner from Piccadilly Circus, in the heart of theatreland - things are looking rosy there too.
The trouble came when they decided to specialise. Instead of the usual comfort-food staples of fish cakes, burgers and the like, the Haymarket's Brumus restaurant went smart Italian.
And it paid off - at first. London listings magazine Time Out gushed about "impressive precision in the construction of the dishes" and "desserts as enticing as the main courses".
Then it all went a bit pear-shaped. Standards weren't kept up and customers stayed away - time for a rethink, thought operations manager Carrie Wicks.
A Firmdale old-timer of 10 years' standing, Wicks oversees all the group's menus. Of its seven hotels, five have restaurants, such as Kemps at the Pelham and Refuel at the Soho. These are successful operations, for the most part - if a little on the pricey side.
But 80-seat Brumus proved to be a tad trickier. "The footfall is very different," explains Wicks, three weeks after changing the menu. "You don't get the stylish, glamorous people you get in Soho. On the Haymarket, you get mostly wide-eyed tourists."
One problem recognised early is that people can't really see inside. Those who did pop their head around the door took one look at the sumptuous cerise interior and thought that they probably couldn't afford to eat there.
But Wicks, working with Refuel's head chef, Robin Read, has given the menu at Brumus an overhaul and brought back more of the comfort-food staples that go down so well in the group's other properties - and this has brought the customers back in.
Wicks says the menu now is "quintessentially English, with no fancy words - nothing that will frighten people".
Add to that a board on the pavement advertising a pre- and post-theatre meal deal (£14.95 for two courses, £19.95 for three) - "it makes a huge difference," says Wicks - and a more casual, jackets-off look for the staff, and the restaurant has become altogether more approachable.
The contrast between male diners' sober suits and Kit Kemp's big, camp, pink floral designs is a sight to behold so, too, are the large numbers of lunching lady executives. "We had 102 covers the other night," says Wicks, proudly, adding that peak times are no longer pre- and post-theatre, though they're still popular.
Average spend has crept up, too, from £17 a head to £25, even though the prices have come down - "we're not using such expensive ingredients now," says Wicks.
The most popular main dishes include the mixed seafood grill served with lemon sauce (£16.50), the suckling pig (£14.50) and the beer-battered pollack (£14), with starters such as the calamari fritti and lemon mayonnaise (£6.50), the carpaccio (£8.50), and the duck and watercress salad (£7.50) also doing well.
The wine list is also attracting interest - and higher spends. It offers plenty by the glass and many interesting Italian wines which Wicks intends to keep on, even though the menu isn't dominated by Italy any more.
INCREASE IN SPEND
There's a Kerner from Abbazia di Novacella in the Alto Adige at £12.50 a glass and £46 a bottle and Vermentino from Sardinia, from Contini, at £8/£28. The wines are supplied by John Armit and Astrum Cellars, who helped Wicks put the list together. Wicks says: "We've definitely seen an increase in the spend by the glass - people are each ordering one glass with this, and another for that, instead of a bottle between them."
And Wicks would love another good review. "It does spur you on," she says, "and you want to attract new markets, don't you? We don't just want starry-eyed tourists or theatre-goers who order a glass of tap water we want locals, too." To this end, she's planning to host an open day soon.
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
â- Beef carpaccio, Parmesan, rocket, £8.50
â- Pear, walnut, pecorino and endive salad, £7.50
â- Baked artichokes, feta, pine nuts and green beans, £11.50
â- Pea and broad bean risotto, £9
â- Wild mushroom omelette, £9.50
â- Grilled swordfish, spinach and lemon, £15.50
â- Skate wing, lemon and caper sauce, £15
â- Roast suckling pig, crackling, apple sauce, £14.50
â- Veal chop with sage, bubble and squeak, £23.50
â- Haymarket hamburger, £9.50
â- Lemon tart, raspberry sorbet, £5.50
â- Chocolate fondant, vanilla ice-cream, £5.50