As Quaglino's, the venerable London eaterie that put D&D London on the map, reopens following a major refurbishment, chairman Des Gunewardena and managing director David Loewi tell Neil Gerrard how they have restored the restaurant's glamour
It should probably come as no surprise, considering it's a restaurant that can serve 600 covers in a single day, that some staff at D&D London refer to Quaglino's as ‘the beast'.
It's not the most flattering of nicknames for such a venerable, iconic eaterie. After all, Quaglino's has been with us in one form or another since 1929, having been reopened to great fanfare in 1993 by Sir Terence Conran, who spent £2.5m to bring the neglected venue up to date with a celebrated new design.
"Everyone knows this restaurant," says David Loewi, managing director of D&D London, the successor to Conran Restaurants.
"It has a huge following and a huge name. So many people remember their first experience here. Before I even started working with Des, I remember coming down that staircase and saying ‘wow, look at that space'."
Revamping such a famous name in the restaurant world, associated with such a famous designer, was going to be no mean feat. And yet, that is exactly what D&D decided to do.
The business closed the restaurant in July this year, and only reopened it again in October, this time engaging Russell Sage Studio to devise a new look for the site.
"When people found out that we were planning to refurbish Quaglino's, some of them said ‘oh my God, you are changing Quaglino's! Why are you changing it? It is such an iconic restaurant'," Des Gunewardena, the chairman of the business, explains.
The decision to use a different designer to Conran was entirely deliberate on D&D London's part. It was a statement of intent from its current operators that while they want to recognise the history of the venue, they also plan to move it forward into the new century.
"We started with a blank piece of paper," says Gunewardena. "However, the brief for Russell and his team was to respect the history of Quaglino's, not just since we have owned it and
Conran has owned it, but back to the 1920s and 1930s. So we said, reflect its history but also retain the essence of what it is, which is about glamour and the big night out. A lot of restaurants now are very informal and dressed-down, and street food is in. This is not like that. This is West End, dressed-up glamour."
The result is that the restaurant is still immediately recognisable. The best-known elements, like the main staircase with its Q motif on the balustrades and the huge triangular light fittings
that run the length of the main dining room, remain. But at the same time, much has changed. Gone are the banquettes that once sat in the middle of the main dining room floor, replaced by a huge central bar that can be disassembled and moved around on castors to make way for receptions and functions.
And while the bar, kitchen and private dining rooms all stay where they were, every single piece of floor, furniture, walls and artwork has been changed.
In addition to the introduction of the central downstairs bar, one of the other most significant alterations to Quaglino's is the removal of the crustacea bar at the back of the main dining room and its replacement with a stage.
That cosmetic change marks a shift in the way the restaurant is set to operate, recognising what Gunewardena and Loewi hope will be a trend for diners to stay out later and enjoy
entertainment as part of their restaurant experience.
As a result, Quaglino's has a licence to open until 3am and will host a variety of live music events, with acts including Marianne Faithfull, Eliza Doolittle, Alison Moyet, Sinéad O'Connor and Beverley Knight all set to appear.
"This is a restaurant, not a nightclub, but it is a restaurant where we hope people will come and have dinner and be able to stay late because there will be some late night music," Gunewardena says
"I think there is a real gap in the market in London for somewhere where you can go to dinner at 7pm or 8pm, but also later when you have been to the theatre and want to stay on
for dinner, or go to a bar and dance without being a member of a private club where you have to spend lots of money." And, Gunewardena adds, plans to run the Tube network
round the clock at weekends from September 2015 are only likely to feed this trend.
So, how much did it cost D&D London to carry out the refurbishment of this iconic space? Loewi and Gunewardena won't be drawn, but it was undoubtedly significant.
"Put it this way, we have spent several million on it," Gunewardena says. "I don't think we can disclose exactly how much it was, but it was more than the £2.5m investment we made when we first opened in 1993. However, that is all I am going to tell you!"
A significant chunk of cash then, but clearly D&D London considers the beast to be worth it. "When we opened Quaglino's back in 1993, we were absolutely amazed at how it took off,
and that was just coming out of a recession," Gunewardena recalls. "Our phones were jammed and people were desperate to get into the place. Quaglino's was the restaurant that put Conran on the map and started the big expansion that we have had. For me, it has a special place."
Where did all the ashtrays go?
Legend has it that since Quaglino's reopened in 1993, 25,000 Conran-designed ashtrays sporting the iconic Q motif have gone missing. In 2010, the restaurant even declared an amnesty to try and get some of them back, but apparently with little success.
"The ashtrays weren't really designed to be nicked, but I have been to friends' houses and found them there," says Loewi.
"We didn't run after people who had stolen them. The view that we took was that it was all good marketing for us," explains Gunewardena.
"It did tell us how dishonest some of our customers were, though, because we used to sell the ashtrays on the menu, but far more of them went missing than were sold!"
Now the smoking ban has come into force, there isn't so much call for ashtrays. Instead, the restaurant has new napkin rings that also have a Q motif on them. Given the fate of all those ashtrays, it may appear a brave decision. Still, the pair aren't too worried.
"If 25,000 napkin rings go missing, I would be surprised, but who knows?" says Gunewardena. "We haven't designed anything to be nicked."
"We are pretty short of those ashtrays, though, so if you know anyone who has got one, let us know," adds Loewi.
D&D London's financials
Like-for-like sales +7%
Number of UK sites 27
Number of international sites 4
Strongest performing sites (by like-for-like sales growth)
•South Place Hotel: +40%*
•Old Bengal Warehouse: +14%*
*For the year to 31 March 2014
London restaurants for the six months to 30 September
The reopening of Quaglino's coincided with the release of D&D London's financial results for the year to 31 March 2014 - and a positive year it has been. The company saw its turnover rise 18% over the period to £93.1m, and its cash profits climb 16%.
"We have had a really good year," says Gunewardena. "It reflects the fact that although we are in Paris, New York and Tokyo, we are still predominantly a London business.
In London and the UK, the economy is in good shape. Particularly in the last 12 months there has been an uptick and we can see that in the number of times people are going out to restaurants, but also in how much they spend."
It's not necessarily the same story internationally, though, with Paris, where D&D operates Alcazar, particularly hard-hit.
"Paris is the worst I have known it for 10 years or more," says Gunewardena. "But New York is very strong for us, and Leeds has also gone very well."
The most marked increase in performance was at D&D's hotel South Place, which saw a 40% leap in like-for-like revenues over the year, no doubt helped along by the fact that its restaurant, Angler, won a Michelin star.
"We had a pretty good year there last year and it has become very, very popular in the City because it is a different type of hotel," Gunewardena says.
"I think hotels, unlike restaurants, don't start off being full from day one. They build up, so South Place is on a natural growth curve because it is maturing."
Certainly, the ambition for D&D is to open more hotels, but finding sites is a challenge, Loewi and Gunewardena admit. There are also two more restaurants in the offing - one in central London and one outside London.
Gunewardena won't be drawn on the details, but the rumour is that one of those new venues could be in Land Securities' Nova development in London Victoria, which is still under construction.
The chef Mickael Weiss
As well as a new look, Quaglino's has a new executive head chef in the shape of Mickael Weiss. 'New' may not be quite the right word to describe Weiss, since he is a trusted pair of hands at D&D, having been in charge of the kitchens at Coq d'Argent in the City of London for the past 14 years. He has also been involved in opening other D&D projects, like the Royal Exchange Grand Café, as well as the Paternoster Chop House.
"Coq d'Argent was getting a bit comfortable and this is a big challenge; something completely new," Weiss says, explaining his decision to move into the new role. "A big relaunch like this with such a big name is quite a good thing to do, although a lot of people say I am crazy because it is such a powerhouse."
That's no exaggeration. While his previous place of work is not exactly a small restaurant, Quaglino's is on a whole different scale. It can accommodate 240 covers in the downstairs
restaurant, 100 upstairs, and 30 and 15 in the two private dining rooms respectively.
"I have had to adapt a bit and rethink what I have been doing for the past 14 years," Weiss says. "Here you have to think OK, I can do this dish - it is beautiful and super-tasty - but
how can I produce that for 600 covers? The whole physiognomy of the approach you have to food has to change, but you have to retain the flavours and placings, and so on.
The choice on the menu is huge, with 12 to 15 starters and around 20 main courses, incorporating classics like côte de boeuf as well as new creations with elements such as spices that reflect Weiss's travels to places like Turkey. He has also returned to his native France to source products like the Vendée Label Rouge chicken that he serves with Jerusalem artichoke, mushroom, truffle and vinaigrette (£16.50).
To help him produce these dishes at such high volumes, he hopes eventually to build a team of 30 chefs, but at the time he spoke to The Caterer the team was still around 10 short.
"Hopefully by Christmas I will have somewhere around 35 chefs for that period, maybe more," he says.
In the meantime, he is spending long hours in the kitchen, and former colleagues have even given him a daylight lamp to compensate for his change in environment from the rooftop Coq d'Argent to the darker, basement setting of Quaglino's.
Speaking as the restaurant was in its soft-opening stage, he says: "So far it has been fantastic. We have had the demand and people have been really happy."
The restaurant aims to ratchet up the number of covers gradually, the plan being to hit 400 by the end of October, and then up to 600 a day, possibly more, by Christmas.