When Layo Paskin was an international DJ and one half of breakbeat duo Layo and Bushwacka!, he mastered the art of mixing singular pieces of music to great effect. As a restaurateur, alongside his younger sister, Zoë, he is taking this approach again with a growing portfolio of eclectic venues that make for one of the most interesting small restaurant groups in the capital.
Alongside Chinatown pub The Blue Posts, which the siblings opened just before Christmas, they run Jerusalem-inspired The Palomar, The Barbary, a restaurant that takes its culinary cues from the Barbary Coast of north Africa, in Covent Garden’s Neal’s Yard, and neighbouring English coffee house Jacob the Angel. Whether it’s for a deconstructed lamb kebab, some baklawa, a sandwich and a decent cup of coffee or a pint of IPA and a sausage roll, the Paskins’ places have it covered.
Out of the blue
Yet even by the pair’s somewhat unorthodox approach to empire building, their latest venture is a curve ball. With The Blue Posts they have taken on an established but dilapidated Soho boozer and turned it into a classy, multifaceted venue, with a pub on the ground floor and cocktail bar The Mulwray above, moving them into the realm of the publican.
It’s not the first time they’ve had a drinks-led operation – the pair ran bar AKA above their London nightclub The End between 1995 and 2009 – but it’s a shift away from the fire and flair restaurants for which they are more recently known. Or at least it would be, if it wasn’t for the pub’s secret: intimate basement counter restaurant Evelyn’s Table, which opens for evenings only later this month.
There are two reasons why the pub was so attractive to the siblings. The first is its location, next door but one to The Palomar, on Rupert Street. The second is the basement restaurant, created by lowering what was the beer cellar.
“If it wasn’t located next door but one to The Palomar it probably wouldn’t have been something we would have embarked upon,” admits Layo, who says they beat competition from 35 other operators, mainly drinks-led, for the site. “We thought it would be a real shame if someone did something we didn’t really like right by The Palomar. And once we started investigating the history of the building (a public house has existed on the grounds since 1739), it became exciting.”
Even then, it wouldn’t have been on the cards if it had to be run like a traditional pub. While the ground floor had to remain a pub as part of the lease, the addition of an all-seater counter below – plus two tables of two – created a space on which they could put their culinary stamp.
“The idea of doing just a pub without anything else we’d done before would have been one step too far – there’s a departure from what we’ve done and then there’s a big leap,” says 47 year-old Layo. “This is us marrying our passions and interests with the foundations of what we’ve already done.”
A design for life
In many ways, The Blue Posts is more of a marriage of the siblings’ passions than any of their other places. With an architect for a father, they share his eye for detail.
Each floor has its own individual character to appeal to different people. The Blue Posts element is still very much a pub, albeit one with a better-than-average food offer. Upstairs, The Mulwray has a cocktail lounge vibe while Evelyn’s Table below is more stripped back, with a buzzy counter feel similar to that at The Barbary and The Palomar.
“From day one it had to be a pub where anyone could walk in,” says Layo. “I like that idea that all the builders who worked on it could feel comfortable stopping here. You can go to The Mulwray for an aperitif and then have dinner at Evelyn’s. But it is not la-di-da; one night you might just have a beer at The Blue Posts. We didn’t want to create a place where you have two drinks and you’ve spent half your budget for the night. That alienates people. This is somewhere that is open to all.”
The result is beautiful. From the building’s classy deep blue exterior and old fashioned lantern lighting to the pewter-clad bar in the saloon and The Mulwray’s more intimate environment with plush soft furnishings that echo the outside colour palette, the space is textural and inviting. To achieve it, the pair worked closely with architect David Archer, whose previous work includes Chiltern Firehouse.
“We wondered if there was a one in a million chance David would be interested in doing something with us on a beer budget rather than a Chiltern Firehouse champagne budget,” says Layo. “We got on with him really well in the meeting. With architects, it’s not always about the economics: it’s the idea, the building, the client. The idea of doing an old pub really appealed to him.”
This, of course, begs the questions why they didn’t just employ the services of their father. Making it an entire family affair would have been a step too far. “Putting up with my father and brother might be too much,” laughs Zoë. “With all of our little idiosyncrasies and the fact that he would have been distracted with other things, it would have been a difficult one.” Instead, he was a “godfather” of the project, providing creative input where needed.
In terms of such idiosyncrasies, you need look no further than the naming of the cocktail bar and counter restaurant. “Rupert Street is no man’s land between Soho and Chinatown,” says Layo. “For The Palomar we nodded towards Soho but for the pub we got the idea from the film Chinatown, [a 1974 film noir starring a 30-something Jack Nicholson] where the femme fatale is called Evelyn Mulwray. That’s how we work.”
A move to the Med
The Blue Posts has a number of quirks that sets it apart from other gastropubs or indeed most other places in the capital. Most unusual is the snug area in the pub, accessed in an Alice in Wonderland fashion through a small hidden door that you need to crouch to pass through.
The drinks list is eclectic “not to be poncey” but to celebrate diversity. Guinness is out, in favour of Titanic stout, and the most mainstream lager on tap is Paulaner. The Mulwray offers an unusual range of gins, vodkas, vermouths and mezcal and a tight list of less commonplace scotch and world whiskies.
The wine list is to the point, with five each of white and red, and two sparklers – one prosecco, one champagne – and spirits are available by the carafe, including FEW bourbon, Dangerous Don coffee mezcal and Paul Giraud Vieille Reserve XO cognac.
“Pubs should be pubs but we wanted the beers and spirits to be interesting,” says Layo. “Some people come in, don’t recognise anything on the bar and walk straight out again. Others love not recognising anything.”
Both The Blue Posts and The Mulwray serve classic drinking food as well as less obvious dishes. The menu, which is the same at both, features the likes of Coombeshead Farm sourdough, pork crackling and sausage rolls as well as longaniza sausage, fried Mersea oysters, Cantabrian anchovy soldiers and cured cod and orange salad. Sandwiches also feature (New England fried fish; roasted porchette and apple sauce and an Ogleshield, onion and mustard toastie) as does kid goat stew.
Whereas The Palomar leaned towards the flavours of Jerusalem and the wider Middle East and The Barbary towards Africa and southern Europe, Evelyn’s Table will have more of a Mediterranean flavour. Spanish head chef Nacho Pinilla, previously The Barbary’s executive chef, will create a menu (he oversees the entire food offer) of dishes that will change with the seasons. Launch dishes include: cured cod with yoghurt and fired capers; roasted aubergine, stracciatella and pickled mango; cuttlefish ragout; and turbot, almonds and shitake (£8-£10 for starters and small plates, £18-£22 for mains).
“Nacho is Spanish, but like all European chefs he will be picking up aspects of different cultures because Europe is such a melting pot. He will look to Spain and Portugal but also use French techniques and even look to some Scandinavian restaurants for ethos. The basic menu will be very much southern Europe but some techniques more western Europe.”
The original intention was to make the restaurant reservation-only, but the pair have since changed their minds and opted for a hybrid approach with half of the seats open for walk-ins. ”I love the way the other two doors (The Palomar and The Barbary) run,” says Zoe. “We want it to be fluid and for the decision to come to Evelyn’s to unravel over the night. But we don’t want to deter people who like to have a reservation.”
The End... and new beginnings
These are considerations the pair probably wouldn’t have foreseen themselves having to make when they swapped spinning
records for plates with the launch of The Palomar back in 2014. Having successfully run London nightclub The End and its upstairs bar AKA together between 1995 and 2009, they initially hadn’t even intended to work with each other again once The End came to... an end... but a shared love of food meant their partnership was far from over.
The siblings first came to work together over “one glass of wine too many”, according to Zoë. Having completed a degree in psychology she moved to Barcelona and ended up helping out with the guest list for her DJ brother for his tour in Ibiza. When Layo opened The End (designed by their father), buoyed by the wine, she offered to come home and help for four weeks – and ended up staying.
“It was an unbelievable journey and an amazing success, work wise, creatively, as siblings and as partners. It was a real Sliding Doors moment that altered the course of my life. It worked really well so we decided to do it all over again.”
They parted for a while in 2009 with Zoë, now 42, entering the restaurant world – “we come from a foodie family and would spend most of the time working out where to eat next” – taking a general manager role at Hawksmoor. She then accompanied Layo, who was still DJing, to a gig in Jerusalem, and it was there they visited popular restaurant Machneyuda and got speaking with the chef owners about doing a similar concept in London. “They seemed quite interested,” recalls Layo, “but you can have conversations like this that come to nothing.”
And yet the conversation was kept alive once back in London, with plans initially to do a joint-venture pop-up. “At that time, there were tons of [pop-ups] and we thought it would be a good idea to do one and see if there was an appetite for the food,” says Layo. “But the more we looked at it the more we thought we should do it properly. We believed in each other and the idea enough to make it work. Over a handshake we said we’d do it 50:50.”
The trio behind Machneyuda – Assaf Granit, Uri Navo and Yossi Elad – were very much involved with The Palomar, with Elad coming over with chef Tomer Amedi, who worked at sister restaurant Yudale, three months before it opened to help source suppliers. Granit then came over and stayed for the first three months, working in the kitchen and mentoring Amedi.
The buzz around The Palomar was instantaneous. Critics loved the energy of the restaurant, with its counter seats at the front of the dining room becoming prime dining real estate. Jay Rayner waxed lyrical about its “vigour and enthusiasm, which are so utterly infectious” while Tracey Macleod in The Independent wrote of dishes “that demand to be shared, talked about, Instagrammed and fought over”.
Even now the pair still don’t quite believe the stir their first foray into restaurants created. “There’s a certain magic that can happen when a lot of things come together, and they did,” says Layo. “It was the right timing, the right place. Our background in music and nightclubs and their Israeli energy gave The Palomar a particular vibe that restaurants don’t normally have. It is very rare to walk into a restaurant and think ‘wow, this has a really good atmosphere’.”
The Palomar’s location, a street away from the main Soho drag, helped create the feeling that diners had stumbled on something ‘hidden’ away, although this was down to happenstance rather than careful planning. The duo had missed out on a number of Soho sites before finally securing Rupert Street, including what became Polpetto and Ember Yard, both on Berwick Street, before the landlord offered them the site of an Indian restaurant.
The roaring success of The Palomar did, however, mean their follow-up restaurant, The Barbary, came with emotional baggage. Was there ever any intention to try to replicate the feel of The Palomar? “We were super nervous about The Barbary. You’ve got to be very arrogant not to be very nervous,” says Layo.
Their approach second time round was to serve food they wanted to eat all the time, in a slightly less energetic environment. The Barbary is more considered – more grown up, even – with more attention placed on the dining room and customer comfort.
“You feel like they are related. We took some of the things that were challenging about The Palomar and created something less challenging,” says Zoe. “We didn’t want them to compete – that would have been bad for both of them. [The Barbary] still has its own vibrancy but is a little bit more demure.”
“I prefer eating the food at The Barbary,” adds Layo, “but I’d veer towards The Palomar for the atmosphere.”
While The Barbary is still very much a restaurant stitched from the same cloth as The Palomar, the group’s third venture, next door to The Barbary, certainly isn’t. Jacob the Angel – named after The Angel, the UK’s first coffee house, opened in Oxford by a man called Jacob in 1650 – is more in the Fernandez and Wells café mould than a Middle Eastern restaurant.
As with The Blue Posts, they took on the space partly to stop someone else snapping it up but also to make better use of their chef resources. The buildings are connected by a basement meaning kitchen prep and equipment can be shared between sites, with the coffee house having the unusual luxury of serving dishes cooked over hot coals or in a clay oven.
“The one thing about a restaurant is that you can’t veer too far,” says Layo of the group, which now employs 110 people. “We can’t do eight different cakes at The Barbary. But, equally, we’ve got a couple of very talented pastry chefs who don’t want to be making hash cake and tahini sorbet for the next two years; it’s a lot to ask of someone. Jacob the Angel solves that problem.”
Also like The Blue Posts, Jacob the Angel is evidence of the Paskin’s chameleon-like approach to restaurants. Rather than open something that resonated with their other two projects, the coffee house has a sense of place, with the location – and building size – demanding what they did there.
Given the popularity of The Barbary at peak times, with people having to wait for a table, and the pair’s previous bar experience, were they not tempted to use the space as a pre and post-drinking spot for the restaurant?
“You’ve got to respect the building and the place. As children of architects, we maybe understand that more than most,” says Layo. “We love Neal’s Yard. It has its own energy and we wanted to tap into that and not do something at odds with it.”
An intimate approach
In terms of its restaurants, every new opening has been smaller than the last: The Palomar has 50 covers, The Barbary 24 and Evelyn’s Table just 15. At this rate their next venture will be a table for two, they joke.
“We have talked about doing something a little bit bigger – economically it’s harder to run a small restaurant – but as long as we are making an honest living we don’t mind. Small and more intimate is what we like,” says Zoë. “Maybe one day we’ll do something a little bigger – and by bigger we mean about 60 covers – but we want to run the places with a personal touch. It’s hard to deliver that in a big restaurant.”
“Some people do it really well, like Hawksmoor and Corbin & King” adds Layo. “It’s an amazing skill. But you’re driven by where you like to go. I like to eat at both places but I would rather go to a small family-run Italian restaurant. That colours what you like to create.”
Their restaurants are a far cry from The End and AKA and the thousands of clubbers they would entertain on a nightly basis. Yet dealing with smaller numbers of people is much more challenging, they say.
“The atmosphere for AKA and The End is so different to two people going out for dinner, which is much more personal,” says Zoë. “Getting that right as much of the time as possible for as many people as possible – year in, year out – is really challenging. But it’s also incredibly fun.”
The closer relationship with the customer is also a departure for Layo, who admits to having a thin skin when it comes to dealing with complaints. “When we did The End, it was before the internet and everyone’s opinions being everywhere. I’m quite sensitive. I can have 30 people tell me their meal was the most amazing thing they’ve had, but if one person is unpleasant that can really throw me. I take that to heart.
“I find interactions with difficult people very hard. There’s a real mastery in dealing with people in a professional way without emotionally connecting with it and I don’t have that.”
Does a part of him wish he was back on stage banging out tunes in front of an adoring crowd? “Being a high-end international DJ is a pretty blessed life. I’m not going to pretend standing on the door of The Palomar is exactly the same thing.”
But it’s the travel he misses, not the DJing. “By the time I decided to move on I’d found myself quite bored of gigs. There was a whole new generation of DJs coming through and I was fighting to keep Layo and Bushwacka! relevant. It didn’t feel natural. It was time to move on and do something else that felt as good as DJing did when I was 25.
“In many ways, the restaurant industry reminds me of the early days I was involved in music. There is a fantastic energy about it in London. It is very exciting. But we are making it harder by opening very different things.”
Once a mixer, always a mixer.
This article that first appeared in the February issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here