Today, The Square restaurant, in Mayfair, reopened after undergoing a refurbishment and change of personnel. For years it was the principal dominion of one of London’s most reliable and reliably brilliant chefs, Phil Howard. At the end of last year, however, he left to open Elystan Street in Chelsea. Since, The Square has flown under the radar, attentions turned to its long-serving chef’s new project instead. Its new owner, though, has form. Marlon Abela, the CEO of MARC, a restaurant group that includes Umu (Japanese kaiseke), wine-focused two Michelin-starred The Greenhouse, and private members’ club Morton’s. The restaurateur’s portfolio also includes Bistro du Midi in Boston; his fine dining Italian restaurant, A Voce, in New York City, closed last month.
The Square, unusually, reopens with a Michelin star, despite the restaurant not being among the names announced during the live ceremony in London last month. It was then, of course, closed and without a chef. But in former Guy Savoy head, Clément Leroy, the owner hopes to have found a kitchen leader who will direct the restaurant on a more modern, lighter course — consistent with Abela’s ambition across MARC.
As well as being given a first-look inside the newly refurbished site, Eater London spoke to Abela about what he hopes the new incarnation of The Square will bring to the capital.
“People want to eat out well, but they don’t want to leave feeling heavy,” Abela says about the new, lighter direction of the cooking. “At all of our restaurants, there is not too much cream nor too much butter — that’s a bit old-fashioned. The ingredients are wonderful, incredible quality, so we don’t need to mask that.”
Although the likes of Iñaki Aizpitarte and Gregory Marchand in Paris, as well as Skye Gyngell (Spring), James Lowe (Lyle’s), and Ollie Dabbous in London have embraced that style of cooking for some time, The Square’s new direction is notable given not just the more traditional style that earned the restaurant its reputation, but also its location: in the heart of Mayfair, a neighbourhood not known for being at the cutting-edge of modern cooking, nor new trends.
Abela points to three Michelin-starred Paris chef Alain Passard, progenitor of the lighter style and leading exponent of the importance of vegetables, before stating that “this is now how people want to eat fine dining or gastronomic food — that’s the principal reason behind the re-launch. This is the next chapter of the restaurant’s evolution.”
“People will hardly recognise the space,” Abela says confidently. “It is very modern, contemporary and urban. We want an energetic airy restaurant, that’s what diners are looking for [today] and we want to be at the very cusp of that.”
Asked if he felt the departure may present any difficulties for the restaurant, and whether, in short, Phil Howard will be missed, Abela of course focuses on the future and hopes the customers will too. “Not at all,” he says. “We have an excellent new chef; the restaurant has a very different positioning to what it was before. We will prosper,” he says with assurance.
“We are positioning ourselves at the very highest level and [although] competition is fierce and [in Mayfair] we are in one of the restaurant epicentres, we do differentiate ourselves. We are very different from everyone else,” he adds. He calls the style “modern haute cuisine” and confirms that the restaurant will aim to get a second Michelin star (which it long held under Phil Howard before his departure.)
It could be said that the category of restaurants Abela oversees — at the highest end of the dining spectrum — are comparatively unaffected, if not immune, to corrections in the market, particularly since Brexit and a slowing economy appears to have had its biggest impact on the casual dining sector. “There are always corrections in the market,” Abela, who has been in the business through the recession in 2008, says, before adding, “there are more independent restaurants doing well — and the industry has vastly expanded and we want people [to continue] investing.”
Though the successful restaurateur does not appear unduly ruthless, he is a also businessman and could be forgiven for a lack of sentimentality. “It’s survival of the fittest,” he says of the restaurant game. And it comes as no surprise when he stresses that The Square is “a project with a defined vision and we will execute that vision in order to survive.”