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Russell Norman: There's big money in small plates

He is the king of the 'recession restaurant' – foodies are already forming a queue at his newest venue, Mishkin's. He shares his secrets with Tim Walker
  • @timwalker

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. Polpo serves cicheti – the small plates of food found in Venice's backstreet bacari, where the locals eat their lunch standing up at the bar, with a small 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."

Perhaps he underestimated his clientele. In the two-and-a-bit years 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 across 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 the acclaimed 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 was ground-breaking; it proved you could open a really successful, hip restaurant without spending £1m. It has inspired a whole generation of people with masses of energy and creativity, who previously were priced out of the restaurant market."

Central London is, to some extent, recession-proof. The past year has seen a series of high-profile restaurant openings – from wallet-emptying steakhouses 34, Cut and Hawksmoor Guildhall, to celebrity-chef endeavours such as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal or Bread Street Kitchen from the Gordon Ramsay stable. But Norman's swift success, from a standing start, is singular. After Polpo was a hit, he and his business partner Richard Beatty decided to open 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; he declined even to install a telephone. A series of delays in acquiring his preferred site in Rupert Street meant that, before Spuntino opened last March, Norman was able to produce two more "accidental" 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, chips instead of fries 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, who is 45, was born and raised in south-west London, and studied English at Sunderland polytechnic, where he met Beatty. His first brush with austerity came after he took a job as an arts administrator for Easington District Council. “It was a mining community that went, overnight, from being a place of 100 per cent employment to one of 100 per cent unemployment when Thatcher closed the pit. My job,” he sighs, “was to try to interest ex-miners in community arts.” He lasted a year.

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 "hopelessly romantic" student, he had fallen in love with Venice and visited the city regularly to take in its 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. It was daunting at first because there were no other tourists around, but once I'd braved that unfamiliarity, I started to get a better idea of the city's hidden culinary places."

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 was so happy with the results that 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 his largest with 70 seats. "I have a short attention span. I often wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea. I'm trying to restrict myself to one at a time."

A handful of popular, lo-fi independent restaurants, serving small plates in the Polpo vein, have inevitably sprung up in its wake: Ducksoup in Dean Street, the Brunswick House Café in Vauxhall, Young Turks in Spitalfields. To Norman's mild chagrin, even the Italian chain Zizzi has started to serve cicheti.

What advice does he have for other aspiring restaurateurs? "Keep things simple," he says. "It annoys me when things are over-complicated. Unless wines are your thing, why have 20 on your wine list when you could have six? A common mistake is to try to second guess what's going to be popular or trendy. 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."