Updated 5.05.21 with location details.
Russell Norman, co-founder and the creative force behind one of London’s most influential restaurant groups in the 2010s, will make what appears to be characteristically stylish return to the industry with Brutto, a new Italian-inspired trattoria, in the summer or autumn of this year. Norman’s comeback comes after he departed as a director, relinquishing any “operational involvement,” from the Polpo group he co-founded with Richard Beatty in 2008 — in August 2020
Sunday Times critic and long-time Norman restaurant admirer Marina O’Loughlin revealed that Brutto — promising a “hearty, rustic Tuscan menu as inspiration” — could be located in Smithfield, the central London location which is home to a famous meat market, the original St. John, and formerly a branch of Polpo at 3 Cowcross Street.
Norman himself followed that up with an Instagram post on a newly formed account, which doubles as a mood board for Brutto: “The name BRUTTO does indeed mean UGLY and one of the central philosophies behind the restaurant is the Italian notion of ‘brutto ma buono’ - ‘ugly but good’!
“More details as soon as the restaurant and property gods permit.”
The Evening Standard reports today (5 April, 2021) that the restaurant will open at 36-37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross Street, on the former site of Hix Oyster and Chophouse. “The bones are good, there’s no need to mess around with the skeleton...it’s a little bit butcher shop, fishmonger, lots of white tiles, bright lights, but…” Norman is quoted as saying.
Though he’s never said it in public, Norman would probably confess that Polpo lost its way — a restaurant chain-elect for more than half of his decade-long tenure as creative and restaurateuring force. And while he and Beatty did a good job of keeping the nature of their split under wraps, it was obvious from Norman’s coded parting announcement that it was probably not without a smattering of acrimony. “Things change,” he said at the time. “I resigned as director of Polpo Ltd in June for reasons that I will happily talk about when the time is right. Or maybe when the time is wrong. Or maybe not at all. But it was my decision and I thought about it long and hard before doing it. My Magic 8-Ball came in handy too.”
Norman’s making as a restaurateur, after years as one of the most well-known and well-connected maître d’s on the 1990s and 2000s Mayfair restaurant scene, came in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. His ability to form a union between the aesthetics of Manhattan cocktail bars and the Venetian bacaros he so adored created a template for elegantly distressed interiors in which small plates and petite cocktails and table wine in Duralex glassware would enjoy an astonishing amount of success, particularly among a new, younger restaurant-going demographic. It all seemed accessible and affordable even when it wasn’t cheap. Novel “no reservations” helped create queues and hype. Sites in Soho came before restaurants in Covent Garden, Clerkenwell, and Notting Hill, but a combination of increased competition in the mid-market, rising costs, and a broken property market conspired to burst Polpo’s bubble by the end of the last decade.
In the two years to Norman’s departure, Polpo had been on a negative trajectory: In early 2019 it emerged that the company owed over half a million pounds in tax and overspent on management, which came before it had to close two restaurants as part of a “restructuring” deal in June of that same year.
And so to 2021 and the apparent promise of a post-pandemic London with cheaper sites and new opportunities, Norman is back. Unwilling yet to share details of the location, he told Eater that he had not yet signed the lease, but said “as soon as I do, I’ll be able to spill all the (fava) beans...”
Another new London restaurant to watch. Stay tuned for more soon.