Searcy's: the bigger picture

24 August 2004
Searcy's: the bigger picture

The opening of Searcy's first Edinburgh restaurant had to coincide with the start of the Age of Titian exhibition at the city's National Gallery.

When the restaurant was still a building site last month, Searcy's client Sir Timothy Clifford, the director general of the National Galleries of Scotland, sat in a Portakabin and made it clear that he expected great things from the caterer. "If Titian was the greatest painter working in 16th-century Italy, then we expect Searcy's to match Titian with the quality of their cuisine," he declared flamboyantly - and somewhat unreasonably.

The Gallery is certainly a room with a view

Clifford said he expected freshly cooked food made from local, seasonal ingredients, which must be al dente. He doesn't want the smell of overcooked cabbage penetrating his canvasses, and is particularly disdainful of pretentious menus. "Crisp lettuce leaves plucked from the plains of Nyssa?" he asked. "It's codswallop."

The group from Searcy's - John Nugent, who is managing the opening, deputy chairman Richard Goodhew, his wife Tori, and head chef John Adair - was captivated and amused by Clifford's lecture. After all, they are used to dealing with exuberant art directors, as Searcy's runs restaurants in London at the Royal Opera House and the Barbican. But it's rare for a client of Clifford's stature to give such a detailed and personal account of what he wants from the catering. He made his views on uniform design, waiting etiquette, and food purchasing crystal clear.

Fast-forward three weeks to 4 August, and the nail-biting for Nugent and company is over. The Gallery Restaurant & Bar opened on schedule, marking the completion of a five-year project to restore the Royal Scottish Academy and link it to the National Gallery of Scotland by giving both buildings one entrance from Princes Street Gardens.

The £30m expenditure on the scheme includes £10m of private funds, part of which includes Searcy's investment in the furniture and fittings of the restaurant.

A glass revolving door leads to a reception area, with the 140-seat restaurant and bar on the right and a 40-seat caf‚ on the left, plus a shop in a separate room beyond the central information desk. The restaurant rises on three levels, with the bar extending along the centre. The ramp for wheelchair users is smoothly integrated into the design.

As architect John Miller, of John Miller and Partners, points out: "We wanted to ensure that all diners could sample the impressive view over Princes Street Gardens. As such, the restaurant and bar have been split across three tiers."

The restaurant's grainy, beige stone was sourced from Burgundy in France, while the wooden fittings are of light American oak.

Searcy's was awarded a seven-year contract, with estimated annual sales of £1m. The gallery receives an undisclosed percentage of Searcy's turnover. Clifford says that Searcy's was chosen because of its ability to provide high-volume catering as well as high-quality food. Other bidders included Compass division Restaurant Associates, and Digby Trout Restaurants. In the week before the restaurant and bar opened to the public, Searcy's catered for nearly 4,000 patrons and art aficionados at nine events.

Searcy's is carrying on a tradition of running restaurants with spectacular views in other people's buildings. But, unlike its operation in the National Portrait Gallery in London, which overlooks Trafalgar Square, Searcy's first Scottish venue is unhampered by gallery opening hours, and is free to function as a stand-alone destination, open from 10am to 11pm.

Chef John Adair is heading a kitchen team of 12. For the past six years, he worked at the Tower restaurant in the New Museum of Scotland. Before that, he was at the Witchery, where he started his career washing dishes at the age of 13.

His starters on the menu include seared West Coast scallops with black pudding, baby leaf salad, and a blood orange dressing at £9.95, or fillet of red snapper, pea and mint gnocchi with basil dressing at £7.95. Mains include grilled halibut, buttered spinach and red wine reduction at £18.95, or chargrilled calves' liver, butter mash, pancetta and jus at £13.95.

In the near future, Clifford wants to collaborate with Searcy's on a recipe book, illustrated with food-themed reproductions from the gallery. He expects a full partnership between all gallery staff, with literary and musical events to be held in the restaurant and caf‚ areas.

The Edinburgh venture is another step in Searcy's expansion outside its London bases for the first time in its 157-year life span. In the past 12 months it has also won two five-year contracts in Bath. The caterer intends to win clusters of business in other parts of Edinburgh and in Bristol, where next year it is to open a bar at the riverside Arnolfini arts centre.

Searcy's chief executive Richard Tear explains: "We realised the number of opportunities in London was going to be limited. It's the goal of the company now to expand throughout the UK. We've taken on additional staff in accounts and personnel. But we're still only the 15th-largest caterer in the UK, so there's a long way to go yet."

Searcy's history

Searcy's was founded in 1847 and quickly became the preferred caterer of the London aristocracy for private parties, weddings, and ball-suppers. Today, it remains Prince Charles's caterer of choice.

In the 1990s the balance of its business began to change, after it won its first retail-style contract at the Barbican in London in 1991. Now, restaurants, bars and caf‚s in art galleries and museums account for 70% of turnover, and banqueting makes up the rest. This change in focus was led by chief executive Richard Tear, who joined in 1989 after working for Allied-Lyons, and the renowned caterer for the Wimbledon tennis championships, Town & County.

In 1996, Searcy's stepped up another gear when chef Richard Corrigan brought his adventurous but precise cooking to the company. Using light textures mingled with intense flavours and traditional, hearty ingredients from his native Ireland, he won a Michelin star in 1999.

Corrigan started off at the Barbican, raising food standards and improving recruitment and training, before forming Searcy Corrigan Restaurants, a 50-50 joint venture with his employer. From 1999, the partnership owned and ran three fine-dining restaurants in London - Lindsay House in Soho, and the House and the English Garden in Chelsea.

The House was sold two years ago, while Vineet Bhatia took on the lease of the English Garden in June this year for his new restaurant, Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, although Searcy's retains the freehold.

Corrigan continues to cook at the one-Michelin-starred Lindsay House, and he set up the kitchen team of the private restaurant in London's new landmark, the Swiss Re Tower, commonly known as the Gherkin.

Searcy's venues

30 Pavilion Road: Searcy's own venue for private entertaining in Knightsbridge
National Portrait Gallery: the Portrait restaurant has panoramic views of Trafalgar Square
Waterstones on Piccadilly: the largest bookshop in Europe has five dining venues, and is also available for private hire
General Trading Company: Searcy's runs the caf‚ in this Sloane Square homeware store
1802 at the Museum of Docklands: a restaurant and bar - both part of the museum and a stand-alone venue
Searcy's Restaurant & Bar at the Barbican
Royal Opera House
The Inner Temple
Vintners' Hall
Bank of England Sports Centre

Pump Room: a restaurant for visitors to the abbey and the Roman baths
Assembly Rooms: including the Museum of Costume

Arnolfini arts centre: a bar-café (due to open in May 2005)

The Gallery Restaurant & Bar: at the National Gallery and Royal Academy

Searcy Tansley & Company
124 Bolingbroke Grove, London SW11 1DA

Estimated turnover in current financial year: £30m
Turnover for the year ended 30 April 2003: £23.5m
Gross profit, 2003: £4.03m
Number of staff: 1,600 full-time; 700 casual or part -time
Payroll costs: £10.5m
Achievements: awarded Investor In People in 1999

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