Karam Sethi is looking remarkably relaxed as he mentions, in an offhand kind of way, that for his next trick, he’ll be feeding 10,000 Londoners a week. Along with siblings Jyotin and Sunaina, Sethi is the man behind restaurant titans JKS, the group who have a hand in some of the capital’s most celebrated spots, from Sabor to Bibi to Berenjak. Their gaze has now fallen on what was the Arcade Food Theatre, which come Friday will open as the all-new Arcade Food Hall.
There’s more to the magic than changing a much-mocked name. Scrubbing aside the “theatre” pretensions, Sethi and his team have done away with the rest of it too, more or less. The bones remain — there are still counters and kitchens, with a bigger restaurant upstairs — but that’s about it. Once restaurant names glared on white light boxes, but those boxes are gone now, and so are the restaurants. Racks of chairs have been replaced by plush pink sofas. Cold bare walls are now wood-panelled. Where before diners used to queue at counters and leave with buzzers that would shake when the order was ready, now these have been scrapped too, replaced by a slick new ordering app and table service. So often does Sethi say “well, the first thing we got rid of was…” that one might think it was a catchphrase.
In the end, he settles for the operators as the thing JKS went after to begin with. When Arcade first opened in 2019, there were outposts of Lina Stores, Oklava and Flat Iron; these have made way for the likes of Hero, Bebek! Bebek! And Tipan Tapan. If the new names are unfamiliar, it’s by design. “Our first decision was — everything here has to be new, and it has to be unique. The dishes on the menu can’t be available anywhere else in the West End,” Sethi says. “Before, Flat Iron had a counter here, but they had a place just around the corner on Denmark Street, a proper restaurant. So…why would you have come here?”
It’s a shrewd point. Despite being more or less opposite the entrance to Tottenham Court Road tube stop, Arcade struggled to draw the crowds it needed, though Sethi won’t go so far as to say it flopped: “If you look at the numbers, it was doing about 1000 people a day, so it wasn’t failing. Although if you read the reviews…”
He admits the area, which feels a thoroughfare, has its challenges. “I mean, look, being honest, five to 10 years ago, I swore to myself I’d never open a restaurant in this area. It was the bus depot, right…?” he says. The challenge, then, is giving people a reason to come here; but, given this food isn’t available anywhere else, JKS have come up with a decent persuader, and have priced things to appeal broadly, with Sethi saying the average food and drink spend should come in somewhere in the high £20s.
The ground-floor counters are: Hero, doing North Indian (“Particularly popular during the soft launch”, says Sethi); shawarma kitchen Shatta & Toum, from Berenjak founder Kian Samyani; Manna, a diner-style fried chicken and burger joint from Bake Street’s Feroz Gajia (“He’s got this big east London crowd I think he’ll bring to us”); Sushi Kamon, from the team behind Yashin Sushi (“big at lunch. The omakase menu, which will be bookable, is looking really good”); and Nepali street food from Tipan Tapan.
“When you come in, you’re given a physical copy of the menu, you can go to our app and order in one basket from all the restaurants and it’s brought to you. There’s no buzzers, no stress. And you can order from anywhere to anywhere — you could sit at the counter of one restaurant and have food from another,” Sethi explains.
Saborcito, a sister restaurant to Sabor in nearby Soho, is no longer part of the opening. Staffing issues are said to have been the problem.
Elsewhere, there will also be a pudding counter from Bompas & Parr, the suitably madly-named Benham & Froud Jelladrome that will serve jelly trifles. Opposite this is Provisions, which will open the hall each morning at 8am (the other counters will serve from 11.30am), with coffee, pastries and sandwiches from Margot Henderson and son Hector (later, the coffee bar becomes a Negroni bar; sandwiches will still be served). Things wind down at 11.30pm; Sethi says they hope to have the licence reviewed in a year, and indicates they’d like to open later; behind Provisions is what looks like a drinking den, with a pool table, cocktails on tap and a mural based on a sketch by Fergus Henderson.
The hall will also be home to Bebek! Bebek!, serving Indonesian style chicken and crispy duck, twice-cooked. Overseeing Bebek! is the chef Luke Farrell, who is also behind Arcade’s star turn, Plaza Khao Gaeng. The 45-seat space sits separately from the rest, and operates like a normal restaurant, rather than with the app. Sethi characterises his meeting with Farrell as a lucky run in — “we just got chatting at an awards afterparty” — but it has evidently been a partnership that’s worked. Last summer, Farrell opened Viá»tpopulaire, JKS’ first-ever pop-up, and Sethi seems entirely on board with Farrell’s steadfast vision for Plaza: “It’s definitely my favourite here. I’ve eaten Thai for years and years, obviously, but after having this, I need a Thai meal every week — the food is that good. It’s addictive. Highly addictive.”
Plaza is overwhelming in its way. Up the stairs, it feels a world away from the rest of Arcade, and from London too. Across the windows are cheap wooden blinds. The table cloths are vinyl, the kitchen is open, the food comes on crockery from a different time, piles of fried eggs, lengths of green betel leaves, southern Thai curries dark and heaving with spice. Stepping up and into the square room feels something like going through the wardrobe: suddenly London is left behind, a faint memory. “We start with the strip lights. In order for it to look correct, we have to. It’s uncompromising,” says Farrell. “This is how it is in Thailand — the difficulty has been, just keeping it as such. People keep asking to turn the bloody lights down.” He laughs a bitter kind of laugh. “It’s a real pain. But we’ve kept it as it should be. It’s designed to be exactly as it is.”
At the heart of the curry and rice dishes Plaza Khao Gaeng serves is a curry paste Farrell sources from a century-old shop in Bang Rak market. “It sets up the entire restaurant,” the chef says. “By doing that, the spice level is already there, so we can’t dumb it down or make it any different, even if we wanted to, which is great.”
Farrell, who for the past decade has been growing and cultivating Thai spices in his Dorset greenhouses, says that he isn’t looking to appease diners, but show them how khao gaeng really are in their homeland. “We haven’t taken it for our own purposes or changed it to suit or appease certain palettes. We haven’t got anything on the menu mentioning that we’re a Thai restaurant… It’s as if you’ve actually dropped into southern Thailand, and this fits with how it would be eaten in Thailand — there it would be served in an old cinema, or a food court, somewhere people can duck into off a busy street. Normally, khao gaeng is eaten when people come along on their motorbikes, whip [the curries] up in a plastic bag, stick them on the handlebars and they’re off.”
While meals here won’t be that swift, Sethi estimates diners could be in and out in as little as an hour. He mentions that afterwards, they could head for pudding, or for a drink, or “look, if you’re a greedy bastard, you could pick up something else at another counter.” He seems visibly excited by the breadth of experience that any diner at any one time — the main hall seats 350, with an additional 45 spaces out on the terrace, which opens later this summer. Spaces are divided between small tables, communal benches and areas for large groups, with half of the space kept for booking and half for walk-ins. Curiously, it feels a little Soho House.
“Look, it’s an unbelievable building — when you’re in the space, when the DJs are playing, with the colour and vibrancy of the place, it’s a really, really fun place to be,” Sethi says, a rare grin across his face. There is, too, another obvious benefit for JKS: Arcade can act as an incubator for them, a chance to test ideas and see what works before they take a chance is taken on a full bricks and mortar site or, perhaps, a dark kitchen-backed delivery service. Sethi happily admits this is built into their plan, and says the group will be paying close attention to what lands and what doesn’t. “But there’s no fixed plan. We love launching restaurants, we love new cuisines, we love challenges — but we’re not planning on opening 100 restaurants over the next 10 years or anything.” He adds that the operators in the hall will be reviewed in a year’s time.
Sethi characterises the Arcade project as being JKS’ “biggest risk”, while conceding it accordingly has the potential to offer them their biggest rewards. But he seems genuinely chuffed with what’s around him. He mentions again about attracting more than 1,000 diners a day, but the word repeated most is “fun”. And it seems crucial. “If you look at the menu,” he says, turning one over, looking at it fondly, “there’s enough choice you could come in every day of the week.
“You could come in every day, and you would never be bored.”
Can it be true? Maybe. 10,000 JKS fans can’t be wrong.
Arcade Food Hall opens on April 22 at 103-105 New Oxford St, WC1A 1DB. For more information, visit arcadefoodhall.com