Conran's 'theatre' of food defies recession

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A VASE designed by Sir Terence Conran, made in India and holding a single, long-stemmed red rose, will today be placed on each table in Quaglino's, his giant new brasserie in central London, as a romantic gesture.

St Valentine's Day, 14 February, the official opening of Quaglino's, also commemorates a little-known Irish saint called Conran, who became Bishop of Orkney in the 7th century. Restaurateurs everywhere should stand a'tip-toe when this day is named. For has not the English Conran shown that it is possible to go into battle in the depths of a recession with an army of 60 chefs, 110 floor staff and 15 porters, feed 800 people a day, at an average of pounds 30 a head?

Sir Terence has spent pounds 2.5m rebuilding this famous old institution, once the haunt of the Duke of Windsor, the Mountbattens and Evelyn Waugh. But if Waugh were alive today he wouldn't be seen dead in Quaglino's: it's far too egalitarian. Someone from Trumper's, his hairdresser just around the corner in Jermyn Street, might be at the next table. But this mixing of the classes is exactly what Sir Terence hopes for. He has taken La Coupole, in Paris, as his model, with a menu of cheapish dishes and expensive luxuries.

Quaglino's French manager, Eric Garnier, can't see this class- mixing happening in London but last Thursday Sir Terence stood at the brass rail of the mezzanine floor, the captain on the bridge of his liner, beaming as if he had just won the Blue Riband.

Below him the vast basement was buzzing as 350 people ate their heads off at a 50 per cent discount on 'preview night'. Sir Terence talks about 'the restaurant as theatre'; Mr Garnier says he organises bookings 'to fit the rhythm of the restaurant'; diners offered their congratulations to Sir Terence as if he were a star.

How can this be, when the rest of London, including many small restaurants, is going bust? Why are some restaurants still packing them in? Who can afford to spend between pounds 60 and pounds 80 for a meal for two when consumer spending is at an all-time low?

The Fifth Floor Restaurant, recently opened at the Harvey Nichols department store in Knightsbridge ( pounds 70 for 2), is fully booked most of the time; Kensington Place in Church Street, Kensington ( pounds 50) has had to take over the shop next door to provide a further 10 tables.

Stephen Bull, another restaurateur who ignored the recession by opening a second restaurant on the City/Islington border last year, believes there are just 50,000 people who eat out regularly in London, and they go round and round trying different places. 'It's paradoxical that in the middle of the recession, the food in big, good quality, value-for-money restaurants has never been better, and they're doing very good business.'

Nicholas Lander, food writer on the Financial Times, who owned Soho's L'Escargot restaurant in its 1980s heyday, believes the estate agent's essential law of good location, combined with a canny calculation of the ratio between numbers of tables and price of dishes, keeps the larger restaurants fully booked.

He also reckons the recession makes it easier to staff a restaurant. 'You have much better control over staff now and you can get better quality people. It's also more economical to build now.'

In the end, of course, it all comes down to the food. The chef at Quaglino's is Martin Webb, a Lancashire lad with a distinguished record including training in France, and stints at Le Pont de la Tour and The Ivy.

His boss, being a good cook himself, has strong views, which Mr Webb respects and they worked together devising the menu. However, he did draw the line at the poached pear Sir Terence sent over with a note saying 'I liked this better than yours'. It had been cooked on top of an Aga for 18 hours. 'I thought the liquid was too cloudy, and I'd only be able to produce 12 a day at that rate,' he said. 'Mind you, the flavour wasn't too bad.'

(Photograph omitted)