The demise of many large restaurant chains has opened up exciting opportunities for chefs specializing in distinctive regional food: Stephen Jardine

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Russell Norman may have discovered the future of restaurants during a trip to Florence (Image: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

On a London side street near the old Smithfield meat market, a new restaurant opened late last year. It’s small, humble, and unassuming, but this place might be the best thing to happen to the hospitality industry since the pandemic began.

Opening a new restaurant right now is a bit like jumping out of a plane not knowing if you’re wearing a high-end parachute or a backpack full of chips. It could go either way.

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Fortunately, this place is the brainchild of the man who knows more about eating out than a busload of Michelin inspectors. Russell Norman, former COO of London’s leading restaurant group Caprice Holdings, took the opportunity during the financial crisis to go it alone and create an alternative to high-priced luxury restaurants.

Polpo served small plates of food to share and within a decade had transformed into a leading restaurant group with 16 locations and a glowing restaurant reputation. Then came the trouble with venture capitalists and the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. After licking his wounds, Russell Norman said he would never open another restaurant.

However, a lengthy research trip to Florence changed all that and led to the release of Brutto. In short, it is the type of restaurant that everyone wants to have at the end of the street.

A warm welcome from the man himself, paper menus, checkered tablecloths, candles in chianti bottles, amazing food, lovely service and £5 Negronis, what more could you ask for?

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At first glance, it looks like something put together, but in reality, from the lighting to the music, everything has been painstakingly worked on because everything matters. It was the best I’ve had eating out in two years and when we left at the end of the night I really expected to be on a side street near the Uffizi Gallery, not down the road from Farringdon tube station.

So why do we care about that here in Scotland? Russell Norman has the answer. In an interview when Brutto was launched, he said: “It seems like there is now an opportunity for novices, for inexperienced but ambitious and creative restaurateurs to open restaurants that are very specific and very regional.”

We are already seeing that. Restaurants like Heron and The Palmerston have brought new creativity and energy to Scotland’s capital just when it needed it most. Go back a few years and Edinburgh’s digestion system was being stifled by big brands taking over property and producing the same food as every other town and city in the country.

The pandemic has changed that. Many of the chains have gone and left places asking for renters. Throw in staff who are taking this opportunity to go it alone, customers desperate for something new and you have a really exciting opportunity to hit the reset button when it comes to eating out.

Before Covid, parts of the restaurant sector had become so bloated that they had lost their sense of purpose. The lockdown was brutal and painful for hospitality, but from the dying embers of that dumpster fire, interesting sparks are beginning to emerge that illuminate what the future could be.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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