A year after closing Bellanger, a neighbourhood brasserie in Islington, esteemed restaurateur Jeremy King has announced that his Corbin and King group will reopen the restaurant off Upper Street as a more casual venue with a cheaper menu next month. King said two sales on the site had fallen-through pre-lockdown, and that lockdown itself had given the owners an opportunity to ask themselves the question: “Were we too precipitous in closing and should we have tried changing the offer and having another go?”
In the latest of his periodic email updates, King said the question of whether to reopen Bellanger was put to the group’s database, with 4,000 local customers responding “with a resounding ‘Yes!’”. He added that it “seems to have not only pleasantly surprised the residents of Islington but has also caught their imagination,” and that it would aim to reopen on 14 August. The reopening will come with a refurbishment, and a fundamental shift in approach. “Whilst it will remain familiar to our old regulars, the décor will take a new turn and the overall feeling will be one of cheaper prices, more fun, and greater casualness — but all in the Corbin and King style,” King said. It will open with “popular” previous general manager Jo Cromwell, who King describes as “Islington born and bred.”
As has become customary in his more regular dispatches, King opined on the wider implications of the pandemic, discussing the difficulties and surprises that have greeted the reopening of the group’s restaurants this month. With the exception of the upmarket Delaunay, on Aldwych, which remains closed for now, Corbin and King has been at the vanguard of reopening in London, with the Wolseley, its most well-known restaurant, having done so at the earliest possible opportunity, on Saturday 4 July.
King said that landlords across the portfolio had been “generally supportive,” but the reality for restaurants which occupy central London locations and whose high rents make them so heavily reliant on tourists and office workers, is that the route to recovery in the aftermath of lockdown is particularly difficult. For essential London restaurant The Wolseley, on Piccadilly, and Brasserie Zédel — the group’s vast, and comparatively affordable restaurant in Soho — reopening quickly to the best of their ability was critical. Corbin and King is renowned for its particular brand of understated luxury, a style taken from the grand cafes of Vienna and brasseries of Paris, and the group’s critically acclaimed portfolio also includes Colbert on Sloane Square, and Fischers, in Marylebone — both central and both of which reopened this month.
But while restaurants like those in the city centre remain concerned about the timescale of recovery, chefs, bakers, and restaurateurs are beginning to contemplate the degree to which consumers will more readily and regularly patronise their neighbourhood venues. At least in the short-term, with reduced office workers and few tourists, plus ongoing unease about the use of public transport, having options which serve local communities appears to have a new degree of importance. Moreover, the relative success of longstanding, innovative, and adaptable neighbourhood restaurants through lockdown has offered a preview of what the medium- and long-term future may hold for dining in London.
The reopening marks a shift in the brasserie’s fortune in the space of 12 months. When announcing its closure last year, King said the group “couldn’t make it the success we aspired to — unlike as has been in the case of Soutine”, then the group’s newest opening, in St John’s Wood, its only other neighbourhood restaurant. “Much as it had been a great critical success, this wasn’t matched financially,” he wrote. Corbin and King’s focus shifted to bigger projects, Manzi’s, a seafood restaurant in Soho and a new, as yet unnamed restaurant in Notting Hill.
Despite King telling Eater yesterday that the group’s restaurants had seen “better trading than anticipated,” he is sanguine about the reality of depreciated sales across the group. He said: “I get asked a lot whether we can make it work at our current occupancy. The truth is that over these three weeks we have traded above what we expected — but at the same time varying between 50 – 70 percent of last year. Very encouraging but clearly we need to go beyond these levels to achieve any sustained significant profitability and try to pay off all those rent arrears and other accrued debts!”
In the local response to the Bellanger announcement, King might reason that there’s hope in London’s neighbourhoods.