Less means more for Polpo’s Norman
19 June, 2012
Russell Norman, the man behind a host of Venetian-style small plate concepts, is the new king of casual dining in Soho, says the Observer in a profile.
Norman’s cicchetti or small plate restaurants have taken in Polpo, Polpetto and da Polpo, all of them acclaimed critically as well as commercially, and his sixth site—Polpo Smithfield—will open near Farringdon in July. He says he is itching to open more. “For us, things are going slowly. We’re always saying: what shall we do next? We could easily have opened twice as many if we’d put our minds to it.”
Norman reveals his secret for keeping tabs on multi-site operations—webcams. Via a splitscreen on his smartphone of restaurants’ kitchens and larders, he can follow progress at his various locations without being on the spot. He is clearly driven, says the Observer. “He knows that for a restaurant to be truly successful, for it to be loved and adopted by a certain kind of cool, young professional, it must be run with stubborn passion.”
Norman is taken to task for the no-bookings policy that has become a badge of honour among fashionable London restaurants lately—but he justifies it. “When Polpo opened, we got a bunch of good reviews. And that led to the phone ringing off the hook. We were booked up weeks, even months, in advance. But when people turned up, they’d be disappointed… They were coming out for a fancy pants destination restaurant experience, and they were getting this backstreet wine bar. I stood there in those early weeks, scratching my head, thinking these people were not the right audience for the restaurant.” Not taking bookings allows him to accommodate the kind of people who are better suited to his venues. “It does confuse me that people rant and rave about this. If you want to book, choose a restaurant where they take reservations.”
The piece traces Norman’s career, from maître d’ at Joe Allen via a stint at a Conran restaurant to Caprice Holdings, where he made his name as operations director. Norman reveals he designs every restaurant himself—“I must have saved close to £1m”—and remembers his inspiration for Polpo in Venice. “I realized that, away from all the tourists, it was a living, breathing city. I also noticed that the locals don’t really eat in restaurants; they spend most of the day gossiping in wine bars. I thought: would this work in London?”
Norman is monitoring the growth of Polpo closely. “The word ‘chain’ is charged. But we don’t have a boardroom. We’ve got a scruffy office with a floor so sloping the water cooler is at an angle. We’re not corporate. We’re just two guys.” His name is on the radar now though. “We’ve had gentle enquiries from very well known squillionaires in this field. But we’re not tempted.”
For the full story, see Russell Norman: the new king of Soho dining.
For more on the current trend for small plates in London restaurants, see the latest issue of Peach Report, out now.