Eating out is the new rock 'n' roll

New venue confirms boom, writes Nick Mathiason
LONDON'S biggest restaurant will open its doors in Soho this October, marking the capital's arrival as Europe's most competitive restaurant city.

Called Sugar Reef, the 1,000 capacity Creole/Caribbean fusion gastrodrome will cost pounds 2.5m to fit out. It will feature a Cigar Bar, a private diners bar, a fountain and dance floor.

The 14,000 sq ft eaterie is owned by Mark Fuller and Jimmy Lahoud - the charismatic 50-year-old Lebanese born businessman who co-owns other high- profile restaurants such as Quo Vadis and L'Escargot and launched Marco Pierre White's career.

It will be launched by a party organised by Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher's wife, Meg Matthews.

Mr Lahoud's group is aiming for sales of pounds 12m in Sugar Reef's first year. It claims to be on the way already. Last week, the co-owners turned down pounds 100,000 from a multi-national company which wanted to hire the restaurant on the Friday before Christmas.

The former amusement arcade site on Great Windmill Street was last month bought by Soho porn and property tycoon Paul Raymond for pounds 12.5m, and Sugar Reef will pay Mr Raymond pounds 800,000 per year in rent.

Mr Lahoud believes he can attract an affluent clientele, buoyed by falling interest rates, armed with corporate account charge cards and disenchanted with the "impersonal Conran style".

Mr Fuller - who owns the Little Havana chain which focuses on tourists in Leicester Square - believes: "Eating out is the new drug."

Punters at Sugar Reef will pay an average of pounds 30 per head for their meal, he maintains.

Meanwhile in two weeks, one of the biggest restaurants in the Square Mile will open in Queen Victoria Street. Called Silks & Spice, it is privately run by Thai duo Mei-Li Tan and Ek Uririat, who have garnered praise from the capital's food writers.

Mr Mei-Lei, who will pay pounds 200,000 per annum in rent, believes that as the capital's property rents rise, privately run restaurants will struggle to survive: "Rents are definitely increasing and unless you've got a conglomerate behind you like Criterion has Granada, then you've got to be more entrepreneurial and spot trends."

Meanwhile, even after Damien Hirst's spat with Marco Pierre White in Quo Vadis earlier this year - which saw the pop artist split from his celebrity chef accomplice - Mr Hirst's appetite for restaurants is still voracious.

A close colleague of Mr Hirst's noted: "The capital's food industry is booming. Growth in choice, quality and turnover in 10 years has been exponential.

"We aim to take quality neighbourhood dining into the regions. After all, the food bug is really only a London thing."

And Mr Lahoud thinks there is more to come for London's restaurant goers.

"People want something new for the millennium," he said. "But only the fittest will survive."