The new Tom's, Westbourne Grove: A local restaurant for local people?
When Tom Conran’s delicatessen and café opened in Westbourne Grove 24 years ago, the Wild at Heart florist outside was just a public loo, a garage, post office and newsagent were all doing brisk business nearby and extra virgin olive oil was still a rarity of supermarket shelves.
Now rates in the street match those of Bond Street and on the day I visited, the kind of expensive sunshine you only get in Notting Hill bathed the ice cream-coloured shop fronts for Joseph, the Kooples and Heaven for all Mankind on either side of Tom Conran’s premises.
Notting Hill Deli turned Trendy West London Pop-up
If you’re wondering how on earth a shop selling eggs and sandwiches can possibly survive in the brave new West London world of basement swimming pools and £15 million homes left empty for months at a time, you’d be right to. But the story of how restaurateur Tom shut his deli only to reopen the space as a pop-up restaurant with chef Tom Straker (formerly of Heston Blumenthal's Dinner) in charge has a (tentatively) happy ending.
Tom Conran's career
Conran’s career is also the story of Britain’s food revolution in miniature. While his father Terence Conran was changing the face of London dining with ‘gastrodomes’ like Le Pont de la Tour, Quaglino’s and Mezzo, Tom was training as a chef at Langan’s and Alistair Little.
The mood of the times was dominated by the giant brasserie, a ‘people’s palace’ which bought dining within the reach of ordinary people and were as much about spectacle as food (remember Quaglino’s cigarette girls, who seemed the epitome of sexy decadence?).
But when it came to unique places to eat in London, Tom’s heart was elsewhere, in the local and small-scale (Notting Hill’s 192 was a favourite, a neighbourhood restaurant, albeit an ineffably cool one, which, back in the day, was the only place to drink and eat in West London).
‘Alistair Little had opened up his [eponymous] restaurant in Soho and Antipodean chefs like Peter Gordon were proving that ‘smart food’ was not restricted to French food,' Tom tells Culture Whisper. 'Along with Rowley Leigh and Simon Hopkinson, they set the whole thing on fire. Around the same time John Armit, Tchaik Chassay and Tony Mackintosh had founded the Groucho Club. They were pretty groovy guys.
‘I wanted to open a restaurant but when this premises came up I liked the feel it had of a village green. All of a sudden people were interested in food, but supermarkets only stocked the most basic items. Cooking then was all about Puy lentils, the right kind of pasta, extra virgin olive oil and duck confit, but for French stuff you had to go the Roux Brothers shop in Pimlico, for Italian you went to Soho and Charlotte Street was were you got Spanish ingredients. So I decided to put everything under one roof.’
Tom's Deli, Notting Hill: Closed
As the years passed Conran became a highly successful restaurateur, adding The Cow, Lucky Seven and Crazy Homies to his empire, but Tom’s Deli began to struggle. ‘When I took out my 25-year lease the rent was £18,000 a year – now it’s £100,000 plus another £50,000 in rates. I'd also put my own name down as a personal guarantee. With the business as it was, I was losing more than the rent and rates every year – which was when I decided to close.’
Yet over the intervening quarter-century, Tom’s – one of the genuinely 'cool' places to eat in London – had become a much-loved institution, among locals past and present. ‘The children who had come in to buy their sweets were now grown up. There was an outpouring of emotion – I wouldn’t call it grief, but people were genuinely upset, from their hearts. Maybe it was to do with the way we did business, which has always been friendly and local rather than corporate and hard-nosed. Tom’s touched a spot on people’s sentimental side – it had become a memento of a particular time of their lives.’
New Tom's Deli
Surprised and touched by the fuss, Conran decided to go out with a bang, not a whimper. ‘We started to clean the place up and empty out some of the stuff that had accumulated, and rather like a piece of antique furniture, Tom's began to look like something again.’
To the original fixtures and fittings they added bright blue vinyl seating and cheerful contemporary art with a view to opening up the garden and the basement to create a proper restaurant. Tom Straker’s lunch menu includes ham hock terrine with Puy lentils, aubergine, walnuts, lemon and coriander yoghurt and veal short-rib ravioli, root vegetable and pancetta broth, alongside brunch classics like home-smoked salmon, avocado, confit lemon, caper and cream cheese bagel, and Jersey rock oysters with pickled shallots and Tabasco. Currently open for breakfast and lunch Thursday to Sunday, the restaurant will start serving dinner later in the year. Current plans are for Tom’s to ‘pop-up’ until the lease’s end in March 2015; it could once again be one of London's coolest restaurants. But with Straker and Conran in charge, who knows? It could be the heir to 192 locals have been waiting for.
An ongoing battle for small businesses
Notting Hill’s ongoing battle to ‘keep it real’ as opposed to rich and dead is not confined to Westbourne Grove. In Portobello, Kensington and Chelsea council has ruled out setting lower rates for small independent businesses, as the Howard de Walden estate does routinely in Marylebone. According to councillor Tim Ahern, ‘Then the question would be, “Why is the taxpayer subsidising a shop that wants to sell, say brushes, over one that sells clothes?” We would be hammered in the courts.’The result has been the closure of many of the market and antique stalls which give Portobello its unique charm (and appeal for tourists), including, most famously, Lipka’s antiques arcade, once home to 80 independent dealers and now the flagship store of fashion brand All Saints in 2009.
The government’s new design czar Sir Terry Farrell recently called for ‘a planning revolution’ in London, to ensure ‘proactive’ urban design delivered liveable places to live, work and shop. Let’s hope Farrell’s proactive approach reaches the ears of London councils whose only response to the ravages of corporate development seems to be the Vicomte de Valmont’s ‘It’s beyond my control’.
New Tom's, 226 Westbourne Grove, London, W11 2RD, 020 7221 8818
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