After some deliberation during the lockdown period, celebrated chef and River Cafe alumnus Anna Tobias has confirmed that her first restaurant will open on Store Street in Bloomsbury this autumn. Cafe Deco, which was first announced in March, will initially arrive half the size than was originally envisioned, as a ground floor restaurant and wine bar with a small outdoor seating space. Tobias is opening with the backing of the team behind essential London restaurant, 40 Maltby Street.
“It actually does feel exciting now,” Tobias told Eater. “Whereas for a while it just felt scary.” As restaurant owners face a new level of responsibility in keeping their venues “Covid-secure,” they also remain unsure of the level of consumer demand in an economy which is set to go into recession. A new business that was supposed to open for the first time this year faces many of the same anxieties, and particular ones too: There was no team to furlough, but nor was there a business from which to pay the owners. Cafe Deco, too, wonders who will come, how they will, and what they’ll want. Tobias concedes that there have been moments when she wondered whether the restaurant would happen at all and that only two weeks ago, the team were planning to open as a deli.
Now, she says it feels a bit more real — and “like there’s a better chance it’ll work.” The lifting of lockdown restrictions has given businesses hope, but with fewer workers in the city and the potential change in consumer behaviour in the medium-term, the restaurant will not open in the way it was planned. Not only will the basement area remain closed — “no one wants to eat in a basement [now],” Tobias said — but the offering will be “quite different.”
It means the team will open the ground floor, which during the day time will be a casual restaurant. Customers can visit either for a “full lunch with couple bottles of wine” or an omelette, slice of quiche and a single glass. There will also, Tobias said, be a “larger focus on takeaway than initially thought: sandwiches, a pork pie, for the students, and business people.” Plans are in place for pots of beef bourguignon and ribollita, plus the venue has an off-license for wine to take home. Tobias imagines not only fewer guests, especially during the day, but more guests who will be using the restaurant for food they consume at home. To further cater to that want, there will be a deli element to the premises, selling “fancy pulses and tinned tomatoes,” she said.
In the evenings, the restaurant will double as a wine bar, which Tobias hopes will retain a “casual vibe.” The menu will be short, offering guests the option of having a plate of ham, slice of cheese, or portion of pissaladière or the choice of two hot dishes, which Tobias imagines might include a plate of rustic sausages with beans, and something vegetarian.
The chef was keen to emphasise that this was “the idea at the moment” and that “things are changing all the time.” But Tobias’ main sense was one of relief — relief that she can do more cooking than was imagined even a fortnight ago, and relief that Cafe Deco is happening at all. “There was a moment when I felt I didn’t want to open a business and it felt dire,” she said of the past three months.
Later in the year, once the restaurant has found its feet, Tobias and her team will complete the fit out and open the basement. As well as opening in line with the expected demand, the team recognise that it is wise to acknowledge the financial situation, and to conserve some of the cash. It felt sensible, Tobias said, to “not spend all the money at once, given there is some uncertainty still.”
Tobias is keen, as she announced hopefully in April, to do whole quiches for guests to take home. The quiche is very in keeping with the chef’s trademark love of beige food, while the whole approach will be in line with her admiration of southern European cooking and the writing of the likes of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, and Simon Hopkinson, plus the experience she has gathered in a career cooking with Quo Vadis’ Jeremy Lee, Ruth Rogers at the River Cafe, and Rochelle Canteen’s Margot Henderson. In a time when customers may well be seeking comfort food and even a little nostalgia, the simple, seasonal, and hearty approach could take off. But while there’s going to be an emphasis on out-of-restaurant consumption, delivery is not something Tobias is planning.
She said they were currently undecided and that it was ideally not something they would implement, mainly “because of the logistics.” “The route i’d rather go is click and collect — a short weekly menu that people can collect for home.” That way was a “good way to get to know our local community better,” Tobias added. It will also mean that the restaurant will be able to operate on a slightly leaner staff. It will currently open mid-morning through to late at night, but she again cautions that those plans are “subject to massive change.”
“It’s all still in the deciding phase,” Tobias also said of the plan to operate with three chefs including herself, three full time front-of-house, plus a couple of part-timers. “You don’t want to over staff, spending way too much on staff without taking enough money. It’s tricky to prepare for a site you don’t know.”
What she does know and what gives her some confidence was that “it’s a beautiful site on a beautiful street.” And with more than a hint of optimism, she said, “If confidence grows between now and September, it’ll be a lovely bar even with socially distanced spacing.”
Tobias concluded: “I feel ready to start, to start cooking, get going, and get to know the customers in the local area.”