For all the tavernas, ristoranti and kebab houses that have sat on street corners and neighbourhood shopping strips since the Seventies, longevity in London is a tough game. Places come and they go.
It affects restaurants at the very top more than most; perhaps something to do with the cost, or their need to be in fashion. Or perhaps it’s just the rent. Whatever the cause, for a big name to survive three decades is rarer than might be expected: to have stayed at the top of its game is rarer still. French fine-dining spot Pied à Terre won its first Michelin star 13th months after opening — a star it still holds today, on its 30th birthday.
It’s a birthday that owner David Moore, who opened the restaurant with head chef Richard Neat on December 16 1991, might not have expected to be quite so involved in.
“My plan had been a five year exit, but then Richard left and I got landed with making sure the shareholders were looked after,” Moore remembers. “I thought I’d go off and do something more funky, more casual, a bit more business orientated... but then, well...”
At the beginning, our chairman told us: ‘you’re only ever six weeks away from going bankrupt’
Moore opened Pied just four weeks after leaving Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, where he’d worked since 1986. Le Manoir was, he says, “a hotbed of top chefs – Michael Caines was there, Aaron Patterson, he’s been at Hambleton Hall since ‘92 himself.”
The early Nineties was a time when food in Britain began to shift, to quicken, to draw attention to itself. It was the era of Marco Pierre White and his apprentices.
“Richard had been head chef for Marco at Harvey’s, and Gordon [Ramsay] was his sous-chef. Ramsay would pop around to us and I remember him talking about a new job at this place called Aubergine. We pushed him to take it. I distinctly remember him rocking up to see us to see what we were doing. He’d be saying: ‘you guys are so lucky [with Pied]. I need to leave Marco, I need to go on my own...’”
Lasting this long hasn’t exactly been a walk in the park, though, says Moore. “About two years ago, we suddenly started wondering if we’d ever see our 30th.”
Luckily, he adds, back in ‘91 he was given some advice that held them steady: “We had a couple of what we used to call ‘the grown-ups’ on board, and our chairman then is still the same chairman now. Right at the beginning he told us: ‘you’re only ever six weeks away from going bankrupt.’ Though his go-to phrase on everything is still: ‘The problem with that is...’”.
I remember Gordon Ramsay rocking up to see us saying: ‘you guys are so lucky. I need to leave Marco...’
Does Moore feel like the grown-up now? “Well, the restaurant is now an institution and I suppose I am the grown up now. Oh, wait, I can hear my wife laughing in the distance...”
Moore’s helming of the restaurant has seen him work with six head chefs; professional success has rarely waned, even if it wasn’t always an unwrinkled ride. “There were no tempers and no tantrums with Shane [Osborn], that was a golden decade,” he says. Tom Aikens, on the other hand? “Well, that was a torrid time.”
It’s not just chefs of his own he’s seen come and go, but those around him on Charlotte Street. The pandemic may have forced some of them out, but Moore says he’s excited for who’s still to come. The next big name is Nuno Mendes, whose new restaurant Lisboeta will open nearby in the spring. “I think that’s going to be a blockbuster opening for the street,” says Moore, “He’ll shine a light on Charlotte Street. A bright light. And you’ve got to just put your best foot forward when it happens.”
And while there have been what Moore dubs “excursions” — notably, 10 years and a star with Marylebone’s L'Autre Pied, and the more casual pop-up Pieds Nus — what’s kept the restaurateur on Charlotte Street is “the people you’d never meet in any other walk of life.”
Such as? He tells a story of the late eccentric publishing tycoon, Felix Dennis. “A great client and a wonderful friend. I remember I was walking down Charlotte Street looking upset one day and he noticed as we were passing. He asked what was wrong and I told him — we were overdrawn by £10,00.
“Straight away, he told me to go upstairs and get a cheque for £10,000. That was it.” Moore later writes to clarify it wasn’t a loan: “[He] prepaid and came and spent it two days later. And then he lent me his house in Mustique for a wedding gift. Those are the real treasures, the people that I’ve known.”
On original chef Richard Neat’s blog, there is a list of his press clippings and his biography, detailing his achievements. Among them is a black and white photograph of him and Moore from 1995, not so dissimilar to the colour shot above. It was the year before the restaurant won its second star. In the photograph, Moore is all but unrecognisable from today: no thick-framed glasses, no flower print shirts — instead, he looks sweetly boyish in a dark suit, white shirt and patterned tie — and he smiles out from under a thick head of hair. So time passes. The book, by photographer Gemma Levine, is called People of the 90s. With Pied, Moore has kept himself a man of the Nineties, Noughties, Tens and now the Twenties. That’s some going. Let’s see what’s next.
Pied à Terre, in numbers
1991 Pied opens
1993 Michelin award it its first star
1996 Star number two
42 Total number of stars, which includes 13 years with two stars (’96 - ‘99, 2003 - 2011)
45,000 Bottles of Champagne sold over the years
22 Courses on the longest-ever menu, served briefly by current head chef, Asimakis Chaniotis
660,000 Diners since opening
826,000 Bottles of wine in and out of the cellar since 1991
159 Miles, the distance the bottles would run to if laid end-to-end — or about the same distance from Pied to Sheffield city centre
1850s The age of the oldest bottle of wine ever poured in the restaurant. Moore can’t remember the exact year; he does remember that it was a Bordeaux, and “very drinkable”
3,500 The rough number of staff over the years; “some chefs had greater churn than others...” Moore says, drily
9000 The number of both glasses and plates broken since opening, or about one each per service
Pied à Terre, 34 Charlotte St, W1
30 Years created by Pied à Terre, which includes the restaurant’s recipes and stories, is available now, pied-a-terre.co.uk