Spotlight dims on celebrity restaurant

ELENA, 72, was acting like a trouper. 'While my legs keep going, I'll keep going. Tell them we're still trading on.'

Shocked at the news that L'Escargot, the restaurant in London's Soho which is almost as well-known as its septuagenerian maitre d', had been placed in receivership, Elena Salvoni was yesterday soldiering on in the long-established theatrical tradition of many of her patrons.

The eaterie, a temple to the gastropod helix pomatia, became one of London's trendiest after it was resurrected from obscurity by the restaurateur Nick Lander and his wine-writing wife, Jancis Robinson, in 1980.

Their recruitment of the legendary Elena from rival Bianchi helped to turn the restaurant into the favoured haunt of celebrities like Melvyn Bragg and John Hurt in the 1980s. But the 1990s have not been kind to business; the glitter began to wear off in 1988 when Mr Lander sold L'Escargot to Pino Bassanini, an Italian businessman, reputedly for more than pounds 1m.

Mr Bassanini, who was distinctly unavailable yesterday, was based in Italy. 'It's tough for any restaurant at the moment, but the real trouble is that it lacked active management,' said Martin Lam, a former chef. Then came the recession. Heavily indebted, the restaurant was sold by Pino in 1990 to Minutedash Limited, a company owned by his father, Gino Bassanini, but this proved only a temporary solution.

By February of this year, many suppliers of game, wine, fish and equipment said they would not deliver the restaurant a sausage after the liquidation of its former parent company in late 1990, leaving total debts calculated at more than pounds 1.5m, at least pounds 270,000 of it owed to food and wine suppliers. One meat supplier alone said he lost pounds 25,000.

Last Friday, Barclays Bank called time on Minutedash, Highlarge and Pathnight - two other Bassanini companies which own the San Carlo restaurant in Highgate and Parco's in the City - and the accountants informed the 45 staff that the company was in administrative receivership.

This is no recession story. It is a story of judgement and finesse. L'Escargot worked when its owners were setting the pace for the restaurant industry, not clumsily trying to capitalise on it.

Just as old hands at L'Escargot were setting out to join restaurants with hard, modern glamour, such as Kensington Place, the new owners of L'Escargot were pouring money into a place called 116 in Knightsbridge, which attempted to bring 'country house' graciousness to Knightsbridge. It opened in autumn 1989, and closed within six months.

L'Escargot was a great restaurant - as influential as the Caprice and Langan's in setting a glamorous, sophisticated tone for its decade when Mr Lander revived it in 1980. But it has been dead rather longer than those still promoting it like to admit.

According to Michael Stevenson, of Smith & Williamson, the accountancy firm handling the sale of the companies, he already has a number of potential buyers for L'Escargot, which claims its annual turnover is about pounds 1.8m.

Elena, however, has yet to decide whether she will stay. 'I'll have to see who the new owner is first,' she insists. And L'Escargot without Elena would be like a shell without a snail.

(Photograph omitted)

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