The bird men of London

Sam Herlihy and James Ramsden

The duo behind Michelin-starred Hackney restaurant Pidgin are spreading their wings and heading to the West End to open Magpie. And they’ve got something special up their sleeves.

This interview was published in the August issue of Restaurant magazine. Magpie opened on 25 July.

James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy don’t like to make life easy for themselves. At Pidgin, the restaurateurs’ 28-cover restaurant in Hackney, they serve a set four-course menu that changes wholesale every week. No dish is ever repeated, meaning that the duo have already amassed a huge back catalogue of dishes, despite the restaurant having been open for only two years.

“It is week 102 and we have created 408 different dishes, plus snacks,” calculates Ramsden. “We like to unconventionally make our lives a bit more difficult.”

If ripping up the entire menu every week and starting again from scratch wasn’t enough, the pair are taking a path of most resistance at Magpie, their follow up restaurant that launches on London’s Heddon Street, just off Regent Street, at the end of July. Here they are serving a modern British menu in traditional dim sum style, with a trolley of cold starters doing the rounds from which guests can choose and hot starters being circulated on trays.

It’s an unconventional approach beyond the confines of a dim sum dining room and one that, on face value, seems to offer little more than a logistical liability. Yet Ramsden and Herlihy are confident it will work. “When we announced what we were doing [with Magpie] I received a message from a critic who said ‘brilliant, I’ve been waiting for someone to do that’,” recalls Ramsden. “The implication was that they couldn’t believe it has taken so long to do something like that in London.”

Like the Pidgin pair, the critic in question will have no doubt visited State Bird Provisions in San Francisco – on which Magpie’s service style is based – and been impressed. “We read about State Bird Provisions and thought the food looked cool and sounded interesting and saw that it was doing a dim sum style of service with the trolleys and trays but not actually doing dim sum,” says Herlihy. “I had it in my head that somebody would do it here and beat us to the punch. I was convinced Russell Norman or else would do it.”

Reading about State Bird wasn’t sufficient so the pair who, with commendable litotes, describe themselves as being “quite impulsive”, hopped on a plane to San Francisco at 10am on New Year’s day (our wives were psyched about that, says Herlihy) to check it out for themselves.

“We sat at the bar and spoke to the owners,” says Herlihy. “We told them the reason we were there, and that we weren’t just going to steal their ideas, and they were cool. One of the owners, Stuart [Brioza] showed us around and told us to let him know if we needed anything else.”

“Having seen State Bird work, it adds to the experience; it’s not a gimmick,” adds Ramsden. “If it was just a cutesy idea then we wouldn’t have pursued it. But going there and eating in that style was really fun. It’s a really nice way to eat, especially if the food’s good.”

Dim sum service style

As many a restaurateur will attest, what works in San Francisco doesn’t necessarily translate to London, and Ramsden and Herlihy have had to temper the service style to their location in order to give Magpie the best chance of successful flight.

First, State Bird is only open for dinner, a luxury Magpie cannot afford given its location, and second, it has a prep kitchen the size of its dining room, “which we do not have,” rues Ramsden. “They have a lot more space, which is terrifying.”

Magpie will have just a single floor that will house 57 seats (neatly twice the number at Pidgin) as well as a small, induction-powered open kitchen. It will have one food trolley as well as a drinks trolley serving pre mixed cocktails in silver canisters that are garnished at the table – a purple concoction called Barney is on the list, as is one called Bo Diddley Rip-off. “What we don’t want is to have lots of trolleys and give the feeling that the food has been going round for a long time,” says Ramsden.

To ensure the food is fresh, the restaurant will operate on sittings of a certain number of guests per half hour. “The trolley will be the first part of your meal and then the trays with hot starters will come out and go round the room to different places where people are sat,” says Herlihy. “We definitely won’t have people wandering aimlessly up and down the room with trays of rapidly wilting food.”

After that, guests can choose mains from a more standard a la carte menu. “It’s all fairly loose,” adds Ramsden. “If you want a four-course meal you could order it in your own way. The point is it’s a bit more free and easy.”

Serving food in this style has a purpose beyond creating the table-side theatre that has become de rigueur in some of the UK’s more ambitious restaurants. According to Ramsden, it takes the now ubiquitous sharing plate approach and finesses it.

“Much as we like the sharing plates style of eating these days, there are so many frustrations with it, such as the food all coming out at once. You also you don’t quite know what you’re getting – maybe three tiny croquettes to divide between two [people] somehow – so the trolley and the tray nixes both of these issues straight away. A, you can order at your own pace; and B you can see what you’re getting.”

From east to west (London)

So far, so good. With Pidgin, Herlihy and Ramsden have proven themselves to be clever and creative upstart restaurateurs with a neighbourhood spot that, somewhat against the odds given its rigid and very short menu structure, struck a chord with London eaters.

Magpie, by extension, sounds exactly the kind of tricky second album you’d expect from the pair. Except for one thing: its location.

While there were mutterings the boys had made a misstep when they opened Pidgin on the former Mayfields site in Hackney, it was during a period when east London was welcoming a number of restaurants of similar ilk to its fraternity, such as Rotorino, P Franco and Ellory. But the West End, and just off the tourist hot spot of Regent Street at that, where Magpie’s immediate neighbours are red trouser brigade hangout Strawberry Moons and diluted thrill-seeker spot Icebar, is more incongruous.

The location might not have been their first choice, but the property, which comprises one large(ish) room free from obstacles, fitted the bill. “We needed a space that was all on the ground floor and really open,” says Ramsden. “This is partly why it took so long to get this off the ground. A Soho restaurant over three floors doesn’t work unless you’ve got a really fast dumb waiter. It’s such an easy thing to over think where you put a restaurant. I wouldn’t say we were a diamond in the rough, but it’s no bad thing to stand out from what’s around you.”

“The restaurant is so site specific,” adds Herlihy. “It was an art gallery before and when we walked in they were clearing out photos of David Bowie, which was a cool sign. Not in an arrogant way, but we backed ourselves that the food would be delicious and the concept would work and be something new in London. Not that it didn’t matter where the site was, but we didn’t look at who’s around us so much. Everyone said we were idiots for trying to open a restaurant with a set four-course menu out in the wilds of Hackney, and some people will look at Heddon Street and say it’s not the right place.” 

They may be on to something. While London’s trendier East End may have had the lion’s share of the capital’s more forward-looking restaurants in recent years, not all restaurateurs are afraid of attempting something a little edgier that is closer to the madding crowd. MEATliquor’s vastly popular debut restaurant behind the Oxford Street John Lewis is a case in point, as is Mark Jarvis and Alex Harper’s newly opened, stripped-back Neo Bistro, which is also located just off Europe’s busiest shopping area.

In October, Magpie will be joined by yet another ambitious restaurant when Nieves Barragan Mohacho opens her debut solo venture Sabor there.

“If the food and service are good enough it kind of doesn’t matter that much where you are,” adds Herlihy.

A meeting of minds

It’s a bold statement, and one more seasoned restaurateurs might call them out on. Yet thus far the stars have been aligned for Herlihy and Ramsden, who are building gradually their experience in the restaurant industry having started out in very different jobs.

Herlihy, 36, is a founding member of rock band Hope of the States, which had a number of hits between 2000 and 2006, when the band split. He went on to form The Northwestern, but this followed a similar trajectory, with the band members going their separate ways in 2012.

A lover of food (“I always ate too much), he took to writing about it for music website The Quietus. Food writer Ramsden, 31, who also ran London supper club The Secret Larder, read one of his pieces and was so impressed he got in touch. “He wrote me a nice email asking me if I wanted to be his friend, and I didn’t have any friends so I thought ‘why not?’,” says Herlihy.

With the running of The Secret Larder out of his home on the Holloway Road, where he served a four-course dinner that would later inform the approach at Pidgin, Ramsden had a more foodie background, and yet he says he “never, never, never” had any designs on opening a restaurant. Instead, he and Herlihy ran the supper club for around 18 months together and also started food-based weekly podcast The Kitchen Is On Fire. “One day a switch flicked in my head and I thought ‘why not take a run at it?’,” says Ramsden. “It was time to take that next step.”

That step was Pidgin, a restaurant the pair founded in 2015 with help from investment from friends and a bank loan, and which has gone on to be a success. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. “From month zero to month 12 it was harder than expected,” admits Ramsden, whose only other experience in the food business was an ill-fated flirtation with street food in 2012 when he and fellow food writer Oliver Thring attempted to make ‘the best kebabs in London’. “You write your budgets knowing absolutely nothing about what’s going to happen, and quite quickly we realised we were not coming close to those numbers.”

By year two, however, things had picked up, with Pidgin’s up-and-coming chef Elizabeth Haig (nee Allen) working wonders with the restaurant’s ever-changing menu. It then attracted the attention of Michelin, who awarded Pidgin a star in 2016 and boosted further its growing reputation as a neighbourhood restaurant with clout.

While Haig left shortly before the star was announced, with chef Dan Graham taking the helm, the accolade from the red book helped. “The star was a weird one in a way. We weren’t expecting that,” says Herlihy. “It wasn’t our aim. We just wanted to be a killer neighbourhood restaurant.”

“The Michelin thing was more of a distraction, but for better or worse it’s an accolade that we’re not keen to lose,” adds Ramsden, who says the star has made people more willing to take a punt on a 9.30pm booking. “It put pressure on Dan but he was already such an impressive guy he took it in his stride.”

Star or no star, the pair are realistic about how successful, from a business perspective, Pidgin will ever be. “It’s only a 28-cover restaurant so it’s not going to ever do more than wash its face,” says Ramsden. We reluctantly, but sensibly, do not pay ourselves large wadges of cash to run it, because we want to grow the business. We are never going to get the yacht in the Med from Pidgin, not that that’s what we’re aiming at.”

Making Magpie fly

The pair’s track history with Pidgin, and their realistic approach to their finances, augers well for Magpie. There is a palpable feeling that with their second site the pair will move from being restaurant pretenders to restaurateurs proper.

They admit that their inexperience when they first started out meant that they were often swayed in their decisions by their staff, but insist that this time round they have confidence in their convictions.

”We were newbies with Pidgin but our staff weren’t,” says Ramsen. “A lot of the ways we wanted to operate were guided slightly differently by staff who thought they knew better. But after two years of running Pidgin we are confident in our approach.”

To underline this point, the first line in Magpie’s front of house manual reads along the lines of: ‘You may have done things differently elsewhere and that’s cool, but this is how we do it here’.

This doesn’t mean that everything they have done since Pidgin has been a smash hit. Late last year they opened Enfant Terrible, “a hotel mini bar version of a wacky French bistro” that was barbershop by day and bar by night. Disagreements with the landlord, however, meant time was called prematurely on the project.

Magpie will be more of a grown up affair. While Pidgin was, by dint of its size, designed to be cosy and bucolic, Magpie will be bigger, brighter and fresher with a “west coast California vibe, but with our relatively idiosyncratic style of food,” says Ramsden. The chef will be Adolfo de Cecco and launch dishes will include a starter of mackerel crudo with blueberry kosho and fennel pollen and a main of udon noodles, patin broth, Calibrese sausage and stracciatella, and Magpie will also serve some of the many gone-but-not-forgotten dishes of Pidgin, with a steak and lobster dish with a lobster bearnaise set to make a comeback in the new surrounds.

This time round, the pair has also employed the services of an interior designer for the first time, although they are resisting splashing too much cash on the site. “We have a bit more money to play with here, but we’re not trying to open Sexy Fish,” says Herlihy.

And while their approach to restaurant expansion might not be Caring-esque, they aren’t likely to limit their clutch of restaurants to two either. “I have a really short attention span, which is probably incredibly annoying for James. We’re not short of ideas,” adds Herlihy. “We definitely want to open more places.”

For now, the dynamic duo are relishing their creative director restaurant roles. But does Herlihy miss the buzz of the music world and the thrill of playing to throngs of fans? How has he found swapping set list for place settings?

“It’s a different world,” he says. “I’m usually sober in the restaurant; I’d have had half a bottle of Jack Daniels before going on stage. But I’m too old for that now. I’ve no urge to ever get on a tour bus or transit van or go to another music festival as long as I live.” That bird has flown.

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