This is the Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the world meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of the restaurant world's hottest tables.
When London restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King (the duo behind the Wolseley) opened their Parisian-inspired Brasserie Zédel one year ago, it was heralded by the Observer's Jay Rayner as "a gift to London." In the months since, other high-profile takes on the brasserie have debuted in London. But according to Zédel general manager Stephen Macintosh, the four spaces under the Brasserie umbrella — all inside the restored the Regent Palace Hotel — were designed in true brasserie style. "Brasseries are very much the talk of the town," Macintosh says. "But they're typically relatively expensive. You could go eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant and pay the same amount of money as you would pay to go to some of these brasseries. While it's not all about what you're spending, it is about creating an opportunity for anyone to come visit you... We want it to be democratic. We want everyone to feel that they're able to come and enjoy Zédel."
On the day after Zédel's official one-year anniversary, Macintosh chatted with Eater about Picadilly's pre-theater crowds, welcoming French regulars, and the grandeur and "enormous challenge" of managing Zédel's four separate concepts: a street-level cafe, the Art Deco cocktail lounge Bar Americain, an 80-seat cabaret Crazy Coqs, and the 260-seat Brasserie.
Coming in when the restaurant was about nine months old, what were your first impressions about the place?
The first impressions are one of surprise. You're coming off a little street, Sherwood Street, just off Picadilly — you come off that street, you enter into a cafe which is very much evocative of a classic French cafe. Everything about it is designed in such a way as to be authentic. But it's small. And you sort of walk down a small corridor, down a staircase that suddenly opens out into a huge grandiose foyer. And then you make your way through that foyer and you end up in the brasserie, which is huge: It's enormous. So, you get this sense of enormity, grandeur, and surprise when you see it for the first time. [...] It's all about setting off a signal about the origins of the space, when it was built in the 1920, the 1930s. It's like going back in time? it's as you can imagine it would be if you were to step back into the '20s.
Did you feel any apprehension about taking on this job and the four different concepts in that space?
Not apprehension at all, because I had a very good relationship with the operators, and always had the intention to come back to work for them. So no apprehension, just a huge amount of excitement, because it was opportunistic and because it is unique. It's an enormous challenge; it's very much where I wanted to be at this stage of my career. It's great. It's a great place.
The Brasserie foyer. [Photo: David Loftus/REXRA]
So let's say a guest walks in without a reservation. How do you sort of guide them to where they want to go?
We man the cafe space with a doorman, who stands outside every day. That individual is dressed in the full attire, he is very well-versed on the elements of what we do inside. He knows which acts we have in Crazy Coqs, he knows about the menu, he knows the geography of how to move around the building. So he's a very useful, immediate resource, something that we tend to work with in all our restaurants; have a doorman there to be able to help people at the beginning of their journey through the business. You move straight into the cafe; we have a team of people in there that help identify. They do it very intuitively. They do it by looking at people's body language, what it is they're looking for. We have been open for a year now, so it's very different in terms the amount of people who need direction. People do have a tendency to sort of walk straight through the cafe now, they go down the staircase and they're into the brasserie, or Crazy Coq, or Bar American, or wherever it is they need to be.
In terms of the brasserie, what's the worst time to walk-in and try to get a table?
Well, we don't sell all of our tables, we hold back a percentage of tables at the restaurant. The whole idea about the restaurant is that it's a democratic restaurant, it's available to people all the time. If you have a special occasion, if there's a particular date and time you have in mind, you can make a reservation for that. But equally, you should be able to access the restaurant at any time, and we want to make people feel that they can do that. Like any restaurant, everybody wants to eat at the same time, in the middle of the evening there's always going to be more demand than other times. But because of the way we operate the restaurant, there's always a huge amount of opportunities for people to come in, if they're flexible. We can generally accommodate everybody who comes in. And that's the intention.
Brasserie Zédel's dining room. [Photo: David Loftus/REXRA]
But we're pretty busy at pre-theater. We're in the middle of Piccadilly, and we have a lot of theaters almost on our doorstep. Because of that, we do have a tendency to have a huge arrival of people at six o'clock trying to depart by seven-thirty. And then we have another wave of people that come in thereafter, the regular mid-evening pattern. Then we have a tendency to have a third wave of people coming in after the theater. So three big waves, but like I said, because of the nature of how we operate the restaurant, it's quite different to other restaurants. We don't sell every table; we're able to have the flexibility to help people if they walk in.
Early on, a lot of press praised how affordable the restaurant is. You used the word "democratic." How does that influence the crowds that come in?
I've never seen a restaurant have such a broad demographic of people coming to it. And that's because it's affordable, but it still gives people that grand sense of surprise when they come for the first time. It's one of the most affordable restaurants in London... and because of that, we have students who are on a budget all the way up to old-age pensioners that are on a pension. And that's the breadth of the demographic that we get here. We get families, we get businesspeople, we get lots of tourists because of our location, but we get lots of people that we know and have built relationships with over years and years of restaurateuring. It couldn't be more broad.
You mentioned tourists: Do you get a lot of Parisians?
We do get a lot of French? we are frequented by quite a lot of French. They obviously embrace and understand the brasserie concept in its purest sense. They see the restaurant as authoritative, and meaningful, and honest. It's a no-holds-barred approach to French brasserie cooking.
Do you hear lots of comparisons from them between Zédel and spots in Paris, for example?
Not in any dissimilar way to anyone who would compare a dish from one restaurant to the next. They don't necessarily compare us to other brasseries, but like any restaurant, they compare dishes to dishes. [...] It's particularly the French we have coming to the cafe, who really understand what we're trying to achieve up there. It accentuates the authority and the evocativeness that we're trying to create — it's actually frequented by French people, to that extreme.
The Brasserie celebrated its first anniversary yesterday. Did the restaurant do anything to mark the occasion?
We did, yes. We had a presentation from the proprietors who came down and gave a gift to all of the Day One staff. From my experience of running several restaurants in town, I'm amazed by how many people are still here — normally you have a mass exodus of staff in the first year, but there's a huge amount of staff that are still here from the beginning, which is a great thing. We had a photograph taken with all the team in the restaurant when it was closed, all the Day One-rs, and framed it and gave them a nice gift.
Bar Americain. [Photo: David Loftus/REXRA]
Anything for the guests?
Yes, just to thank our regular clientele. We acknowledge them personally, and thank them for their support. We do that with a little hospitality at the table, absolutely. They're a part of the framework, without them we're kind of at a loss. We do want to thank them, and we've been doing that over the last two or three weeks.
Looking back on the first year, are there any fun new plans moving forward?
Fun new plans. We're very happy with the growth of Crazy Coqs, being our first exploration into the world of cabaret. We've got a lot of exciting programming coming next year, now that we're starting to understand what works in the venue. In terms of the development of that space, it's very very exciting. [...] And in the brasserie itself? because of the size of the space, when the restaurant is pumping and you're in the middle of service, there's no better atmosphere than the one that Zedel is able to create. The volume of people, it's quite something to behold. It's really exciting. So, obviously we just want to continue to enjoy that. And then with the cafe, fairly soon, we're going to be experimenting with outside tables. We've got some redesign of the street going on at the moment, in front of the restaurant, so we'll create much more of an al fresco feel for the front facade of the restaurant. And we hope to be able, again, to send that signal of the classic French brasserie. Let it linger out into the street, in the warm early evenings we never have here in London. [Laughs]
Finally, what's your must-have gatekeeper tool?
I've never asked myself that question. I think the personality trait is actually quite simple: You have to like people. You have to genuinely want to help other message. It's a very simple message that I try to filter down into the team at large. We're in the business of trying to make people happy. If that's prominent in our minds, you're pre-supposed to making the right decision in any difficult circumstance. And that goes right from the top all the way to the most junior member of staff. If your focus is on, "How do I make this person happy?" — whether it be a customer or another member of staff — then you'll naturally succeed. Because that's what our business is all about, is about creating warmth. It's about changing emotional states into the positive. The better you get at doing that, the better you get in the industry. I like to think that's a strength of mine. Without it, I'd be at a loss.
· Brasserie Zédel [Official site]
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