Grillshack, the Richard Caring-backed restaurant fronted by Hannah Bass and former Gordon Ramsay Holdings chef Mark Askew, has developed a sophisticated hybrid of counter service and table service aided by the latest digital technology.
The Soho restaurant, which opens this month, allows diners to order its concise menu of cooked-to-order dishes at the counter, via a smartphone app and at touch-screen order points.
US burger chain Shake Shack, which opened its first UK branch earlier this year, has played an important role in raising the credibility of counter service, with diners increasingly willing to spend comparatively large sums on speedy but high-quality experiences.
The interior design and drinks offer at this new breed of fast-casual restaurant tend to be of a better standard than many more mainstream counterparts.
“The fast-casual players are extremely good at what they do, but we’ve rethought and finessed certain elements,” says Grillshack co-director Hannah Bass. “For example, customers who order a dessert are given a token that they cash in when they’ve finished their mains. In some existing fast-casual formats the dessert has to be served at the same time as the mains, which causes a problem with some dishes.”
Bass says that while her team has travelled extensively in the US, where such formats are an established part of the restaurant scene, most of the inspiration for Grillshack came from what’s happening on this side of the Atlantic. “We’ve got a lot of respect for the likes of Nando’s and Gourmet Burger Kitchen, they’re very effective operators,” adds Bass.
Recently opened pizzeria Pizza Union in Spitalfields Market, east London, is also embracing counter service. Diners queue up at its pizza preparation station and create bespoke toppings in a manner comparable to sandwich giant Subway and the burrito players. The 12-inch ‘super fast’ pizzas are fired in an extremely hot oven and cook in less than one minute.
Novelty value aside, counter service offers considerable benefits for operators and customers alike. Guests can control the pace of their experience and – since in most cases all food and drink is purchased in advance – there’s no waiting around to pay the bill. The restaurateur can generally turn tables much faster, employ fewer staff and offer a takeaway service more easily.
A host of upcoming London restaurants are embracing counter ordering. Blackfoot, a pork-led restaurant in Exmouth Market, Islington, conceived by former Leon operations manager Tom Ward and Leon co-founder Allegra McEvedy, will have counter service at lunch. Porchetta – Italian-style loin and belly stuffed with fresh herbs, rolled and roasted – served with bread and salsa verde will be one of the signature dishes.
New York Mexican restaurant La Esquina is hoping to open a site in London with Notting Hill a possible location. The original restaurant, near Little Italy in Lower Manhattan, fuses counter and café-style service upstairs and has a more conventional restaurant below.
This article appears in the September issue of Restaurant magazine, out today (4 September). Subscribe here.