The pioneer of the recession restaurant

Russell Norman has the Midas touch – foodies are already forming a queue at his newest venue, Mishkin's. He shares his secrets with Tim Walker

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The Independent Online

Russell Norman is in his favourite spot at Mishkin's, his new restaurant in Covent Garden: a high stool at the bar. "I hate the traditional table for two," he says. "You're stuck away from the action, looking at a wall. The bar injects energy into a restaurant space; that's where I prefer to sit, ordering food and chatting."

Norman's first place was Polpo, which opened on Beak Street in Soho in September 2009. It serves cicheti – the small plates of food found in Venice's backstreet bacari, where locals eat their lunch standing up at the bar, with a glass of wine. "My original idea was to open a genuine bacaro with just a bar, no tables," he says. "But I didn't think London was ready for that."

Since Polpo's opening, Londoners' enthusiasm for his buzzy, sociable establishments has allowed him to open a further four in the West End – including Mishkin's, which served its first customers last month. He already has more than 120 staff in the group, feeding over 6,000 diners every week.

Sam Hart, a fellow restaurateur, calls him "the pioneer of the recession-era restaurant". Hart, who owns Barrafina and Fino with his brother Eddie, says: "Russell's places are scruffy, earthy and cool, which is exactly what everyone wanted when the recession struck. Polpo... proved you could open a really successful, hip restaurant without spending £1m. It has inspired a whole generation of people... who previously were priced out of the restaurant market."

The past year has seen a series of restaurant openings – from steakhouses 34, Cut and Hawksmoor (Guildhall), to celebrity chef endeavours such as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, or Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen. But Norman's swift success is singular. After Polpo was a hit, he and his business partner Richard Beatty opened Spuntino, which serves American diner food on small plates at a 26-seat bar. "It's my idea of what a diner might have looked like in Brooklyn in the 1880s," Norman says. "If diners had existed then."

Like Polpo, Spuntino doesn't take reservations. A series of delays in acquiring his preferred site in Rupert Street meant that, before Spuntino opened last March, Norman produced two more cicheti joints nearby: Polpetto in Soho and da Polpo in Covent Garden.

Mishkin's is modelled after the Italian cafés and Jewish delis of east London. It serves bread and butter instead of ciabatta, and a spectacular Brick Lane-style salt beef beigel. His menus may come from far and wide but the feel of all his restaurants is borrowed from a single city, he says. "I just went to New York and copied what they've been doing for years. New York's dining scene is six to 10 years ahead of London's and I knew there weren't enough places here that get fun and funky in the evening, when the music gets cranked up and the lights get cranked down."

His love of food is trumped by his love for the "theatre" of restaurants. The young, much-tattooed staff are hired for their attitude. "Russell's restaurants are about having fun," Hart says. "Yes, the food is good. But the reason people are flocking there is more to do with the atmosphere and the vibe."

Norman, 45, was born and raised in south-west London, and studied English at Sunderland Polytechnic, where he met Beatty. After returning to London he found work as a bartender and waiter while taking a postgraduate teaching degree. "I became head of drama at a school in Stanmore, but every Saturday I was working as a maître d' at Joe Allen's in Covent Garden. After three years I realised I enjoyed my part-time job more than my full-time one." He left teaching and rose through the ranks of the London restaurant scene, eventually becoming operations director of Caprice Holdings, with responsibility for the likes of The Ivy, J Sheekey and Scott's.

As a student, he had fallen in love with Venice and visited regularly to take in the art and architecture. "But it was only when I started to go there with my wife, when we were courting, that I saw what had been under my nose all the time. Venice is thought of as an appalling food destination, but I noticed these little wine bars – bacari – where the locals were sipping wine and eating snacks."

He quit his job at Caprice Holdings a week after Lehman Brothers filed for insolvency in 2008. "Everyone said I was mad, but I had a gut feeling that it was the right thing to do." By the time Mishkin's opened, the group had an annual turnover of £5m. He and Beatty get offers all the time, he says, but so far have succeeded without the backing of any wealthy third-party investors. They couldn't afford an interior designer for Polpo, so Norman did it himself; he now designs all the restaurants. The executive team is small: Norman, Beatty, general manager Luke Bishop and head chef Tom Oldroyd. Each new restaurant is paid for with the profits from the last. A Polpo cookbook is coming out next year and Norman is already planning a sixth central-London spot, which will be larger than da Polpo, currently the largest with 70 seats.

What advice does he have for other aspiring restaurateurs? "My ideas are always just places that I would want to go to. With Mishkin's, I was standing on a corner in Soho at about 12.30pm and thinking, 'what do I want to eat? I really want a big salt-beef sandwich'. So I built a restaurant where I could get one."