Richard Polo, born in Connecticut, USA, to Italian immigrants from Amalfi, has spent the last 25 years in London during which time he has become one of the capital’s most successful, stylish and reclusive restaurateurs.
When we met for a coffee and a slice of pizza bianca in the first of his two Exeter Street Bakeries he confessed that he had only once before given an interview, to the newspaper in his home town of West Haven. And, as he looked back over his career to date, he realised that it had been a sequence of approximately eight-year itches.
‘I came over in 1975 from New York to open Joe Allen in Covent Garden and I followed this in 1983 with Orso, just round the corner, and then in 1992 I launched Orsino, its sibling, in W11. Last autumn, because I love bread, I started a bakery in Park Royal, north London, specialising in half a dozen Italian breads and pizzas which has been supplying our restaurants and others as well as various delicatessens. Now come these two bakeries/ coffee bars, in W8 and from March 1st right next door to Joe Allen, which are I suppose my first step outside the restaurant business since I started as a barman in Joe Allen, New York, more than 40 years ago.’
Exeter Street Bakeries are likely to be as successful as Polo’s restaurants not just because their bread is so good (Polo has spent the last four years assiduously searching for the right ingredients, sites and staff) but also because they make their appearance at a time when Londoners fully and finally appreciate a good loaf and will pay the price. The success of various Maisons Blancs, Paul in Covent Garden, Poilane and Baker & Spice, in SW3, are proof of this.
But Polo’s success as a restaurateur also underlines two simple rules of the business: that first of all you must get the basics right to attract your customers and secondly that, as discreetly as possible, you must continually innovate so that the restaurants never appear to change but yet never stand still. This attention to detail prompted his only professional complaint, that with three restaurants open seven days a week he feels he does not visit the competition as often as he should.
‘When Joe Allen first opened in New York, ‘ Polo explained,’ it was in the lower ground floor of two brownstones separated by arches. It’s raison d’être was simply to be a kind of relaxed home from home for actors and New York Times staff and it has been doing that successfully for 35 years.’
‘When Joe and I came over here to find a similar site we saw our current location but immediately discarded it because we thought it was just too big. It was 9,000 sq ft of a basement that had once been an orchid warehouse. Then we went back and began to pace it out, to figure out where the bar, kitchens, storerooms and lavatories would be and suddenly it did not appear that large. Finally, we realised that if we were to introduce a wall with arches so that the two rooms become more intimate but people could still see what is going on the room’s overall size would not be a problem, that it would have the same feel as in New York.’
Clever lighting, hundreds of theatrical posters, friendly staff and great cocktails have contributed to the restaurant’s longevity but Polo has ensured that by changing the menu twice a day every day it has not remained in a culinary time warp.
‘When we celebrated our 25th birthday last year we dug out a few of the original menus and it is remarkable how much has changed, a tribute to how far more discerning Londoners have become. Everything then was rather unsophisticated, dishes like Southern fried chicken for example and a lot of other barbecued items. And, most significantly, there was just no attempt to offer anything that was calorie conscious.’
Desserts are still on the heavy side – even our 10-year-old daughter was defeated by the combination of chocolate brownie and hot fudge sauce – but there had been a run of modern, lighter dishes beforehand: a salad of quails eggs, marinated anchovies and ruby red chard; deep fried calamari with lemon and chive mayonnaise and a warm asparagus, sun-dried tomato and herb tart as well as the trademark hamburgers, still available, still not on the printed menu and still amongst the best in town.
Over a second espresso two other factors in Polo’s long-term success became apparent. The first has been his ability to hold on to key staff. Like musicians, many who open restaurants have a tendency to fall out particularly when they become successful, but after 25 years Polo is still working alongside Martin Wilson, now head chef at Orso, Peter Burdge, his head baker, and Jimmy Hardwick who is still playing the piano at Joe Allen as he has done since the day it opened.
The second, as Polo immediately acknowledged, is that in a world where image counts for so much it pays to marry a great designer. His wife, Tricia Guild of Designers’ Guild, and her team have been responsible for the bakeries’ sleek and distinctive interiors and logo. And, in a symbolic example of how just how food makes the world go round, he pointed to the dishes of olive oil on the counter into which pre-cut cubes of bread are to be dipped. ‘These,’ he said with a smile, ‘are designed by Tricia but made in a pottery just outside Amalfi from which my grandparents set sail for a new life in the US a hundred years ago’.
Exeter Street Bakery, 1b Argyll Street, London W8 7DB (tel 020 7937 8484)
and from 1 March at 15 Exeter Street, London WC2E 7DT (tel 020 7379 1881)
Open 0800-1830 Monday-Saturday, 0900-1800 Sunday
Joe Allen, 326 W46th Street, NY (tel 212 581 6464)
Joe Allen, 13 Exeter Street, London WC2E 7DT (tel 020 836 0651)