Footie opens its gates to the foodies

Fashionable restaurants are now the name of the game at Chelsea FC, reports Andrew Tuck
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The Independent Online
FORGET Wagon Wheels and hot dogs, think oysters and foie gras, because that's what will be on the menu at the four upmarket restaurants and bars which open next month at Chelsea Football Club. The new dining spots are part of the pounds 200m transformation of the club's Stamford Bridge HQ into the "Chelsea Village", a scheme which also includes a conference centre and hotel.

They are perhaps the most extreme example of the gentrification of the beautiful game that has occurred since the introduction of all-seater stadiums after the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman, has been the driving force behind the decision to score the culinary goals, although the restaurants' day-to- day management is in the hands of a sister company and a trusted team of seasoned executives. Many of these seem to be keen to play down their links with football, for fear of deterring wealthy locals from popping in for a meal.

A man who made his money in sugar, property and the haulage business before buying Chelsea in 1982 for a nominal pounds 1, Bates realised the potential of a business which most entrepreneurs would have seen as just about football. The Chelsea FC of the future, to the chagrin of traditionalists, will be not so much a football club, more an entertainment centre.

It took Bates 10 years to get the ground and then four years to acquire planning permission. Now, instead of just draughty stands and a pitch, the Chelsea complex will include a money-spinning assortment of flats (including one reserved for Mr Bates himself), a hotel and a cavernous club megastore.

But it is the restaurants more than anything else which will highlight just how sophistcated football clubs have become. The four eateries will include Arkle's, an Irish restaurant complete with oyster bar where the average spend per couple is expected to be a mighty pounds 100.

Chelsea have snapped up chef Simon Bradley from the fashionable Atlantic Bar & Grill to cook at Fishnets, a fish restaurant. Although fish and chips, a traditional pre-match scoff for fans, will be served, they are now described as "gourmet", and the menu is targeted at "seafood aficionados, stylish couples and discerning business lunchers" rather than the supporter in the stands.

If David Mellor, Tony Banks and the other highly-paid supporters of Chelsea become bored with the delights of Arkle's and Fishnets, they can opt for King's Brasserie, a 3,000-square foot restaurant styled on the hip Union Square Cafe in New York, and built at a cost of pounds 1.5m. Or there is The Shed, a simpler sports bar, named after the huge terrace that used to stand at at one end of the ground, and which in the 1970s was notorioius for hooliganism.

But can the restaurants unite footies and foodie fans alike under the club's blue flag? Peter Price, managing director of Chelsea Village, says that the restaurants are not there just to cater for the club's followers, but to attract the Chelsea ladies who lunch, and indeed anyone who likes good food. Talking like a tough football manager, he says, "We are competitors in the restaurant business and have to provide good food on the plate in a friendly welcoming environment. We intend to be the best." Ed Murray, executive director of Chelsea Village and the man responsible for the King's Brasserie, is unabashed about saying that although King's is on the Chelsea ground, it is not really for Chelsea fans.

"We have tried to distance ourselves from the club for marketing purposes. There's the problem of the hooliganism factor and the risk that it will alienate the Fulham set. This business has got to stand alone, although hopefully the money generated will enable us to buy those expensive international players."

On match days, Murray suggests that, apart from the Shed, the restaurants will only admit diners wearing a jacket and tie in a bid to keep the lads away.

Murray wants King's to service the hotel's guests for breakfast, business centre delegates at lunch time, and everyone in the evening, and he insists that it will be as stylish as the restaurant in the Harvey Nichols department store in Knightsbridge.

Will the idea of bolting on upmarket restaurants to football clubs happen across the country? Price is doubtful. "I wouldn't suggest Arsenal doing it. Their supporters just don't have the same disposable income, and I also doubt they would be able to attract the talent like we have."

On the pitch, of course, it's a different matter.

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