Despite the proliferation of quality steak restaurants across the capital – led by Hawksmoor and Goodman - Evans, who left his role as deputy managing director and business development director at the Boisdale Group to head up Smith & Wollensky’s European business, told BigHospitality he was confident the restaurant brand would be well-received by the capital’s diners.
“I’ve never been so excited about an opening,” he said. “I know there are some quality steakhouse operators already in London, but I think there is still plenty of room in the market for something of this calibre.
“The steak and burger offer is growing all the time in London. You only have to look at the growth of Five Guys and the queues outside Shake Shake’s site in Covent Garden to see that the burger is still king in the UK.”
Although he has confidence in the brand’s ability to succeed, Evans, who together with investors owns the licence to open Smith & Wollensky in Europe and the Middle East, said he was ‘feeling the pressure’ of launching the first Smith & Wollensky outside its native country.
The company, which was established in 1977 and operates nine sites in the US, had resisted the urge to expand internationally until now.
“There’s a huge weight of expectation,” said Evans. “Not just from everybody within the business – the investors and partners in America - but also from customers.
“I spent eight weeks in the States and customers - either Brits abroad or Americans, couldn’t speak highly enough of the brand, so I am certainly feeling the pressure.”
Pressure will be even higher on the restaurants’ opening night with Smith & Wollensky founder Alan Stillman, Heinz boss Warren Buffet and actor Michael Caine on the guest list.
Nevertheless, Evans is keeping his cool and is focusing on ensuring the 300-cover restaurant will run as smoothly as possible on opening.
His team is almost complete with senior management ‘all in place’, including executive chef Stephen Collins (ex-Quaglino’s and Me London), who is currently working alongside Smith & Wollensky’s corporate chef Matt King in the US to work his way through recipes and financial controller Ian Moore, previously management accountant at Jason Atherton Restaurant Holdings.
Like the stateside restaurants, Smith & Wollensky’s UK menu will feature steaks, burgers and seafood, but sizing and sourcing will be slightly different.
Dry-aged USDA prime beef, which is key on Smith & Wollensky’s US menus, will still appear, but will also be joined by beef from Scotland and Ireland to keep prices lower. Beef tenderloin will also be cut at 8oz and 12oz for the UK instead of 10oz and 14oz which is offered in the States.
Lobster will come from Scotland and seafood from Dorset, instead of Maine, said Evans and while a number of Smith & Wollensky’s own label American wines will feature, there will be more European wines on the menu, particularly by the glass, to take advantage of the UK’s proximity to Europe.
Designer Martin Brudnizki has given the two-storey site, which comprises two bars, two main dining areas and three private dining rooms, a look inspired by the 1920’s with marble and glass featuring heavily. Tables will be decked out with white linens and silver plated Sheffield cutlery.
Service too will aim to have the ‘warm welcome’ given by staff at its American sites with staff in London to be given training by Smith & Wollensky’s former operations director Kim Dinsmore.
“Everything in that space and that we put in front of the customer will be significantly better than the States and competitors,” said Evans.
“The brand is well-known and loved and the biggest challenge was to ensure that anyone who comes into the restaurant recognises it, but we also have to evolve it a bit and tweak some things for the market without it losing its identity.”
While Smith & Wollensky’s first UK site is yet to open, Evans said the company was already in talks to develop the brand elsewhere in London, Europe and the Middle East.
A smaller site in London – in the city or Canary Wharf – is already being planned as is one in Abu Dhabi.
“I didn’t leave a board position at Boisdale after 10 years with equity in the business to come and open one restaurant,” he said.
“This entire restaurant is being funded with equity and the group behind it have relatively deep pockets. I think if we can do it in London we can do it elsewhere.
“London could support two but after that, other big European cities where red meat is loved is where we’ll head. We have an opportunity with client in Abu Dhabi and that might be number two before we explore more in the Middle East."