Richard Corrigan is walking round the former Nuala restaurant in London’s Old Street pointing out things he’s going to change. Even though the fixtures and furniture are no more than a year old – the new-build restaurant was opened with Irish chef Niall Davidson at the helm at the tail-end of 2017 but closed just over a year later – and the two-storey space still looking in pretty good nick, it’s all coming out.
That means the massive concrete counter that sits in the middle of the dining room is being removed to make way for an oyster bar; the huge hearth with rotisserie is also destined for the scrapheap, as are all the restaurant tables and low-backed leather seating about which Corrigan loudly voices his contempt. The restaurant’s small foyer, meanwhile, will be removed to enlarge the ground floor bar and restaurant area.
Open for only a year, the previous restaurant suffered a staff exodus, with Davidson leaving after only four months behind the pass and other key figures, including head chef Colin McSherry, chef Anaïs Van Manen and restaurant manager Charlie Sims, following him out the door shortly afterwards. It then closed suddenly earlier this year resulting in a Marie Celeste-like scene, with all the furniture still in place and a fully-equipped kitchen complete with a huge stove, adjustable height parilla grill and wood-fired oven. Bags of freshly laundered napkins sit untouched in a pile in a corner, stacks of earthenware crockery and expensive glassware are dotted around the room and both back bars still heave with half-empty bottles of spirits, predominantly Irish whiskey.
All this isn’t lost on Corrigan who, despite being in ruthless interior design mode, doesn’t take any pleasure from picking at the bones of a business from a fellow Irishman. “Niall did a lot of good, every review Nuala got was bloody brilliant,” he says, simultaneously pointing out yet another aspect of the room that is being stripped out. “The only negative thing all the critics said was that it was uncomfortable, which it bloody was.
“And we haven’t behaved like a bunch of thieves,” he adds, in reference to the fact that he’s taking on a fully functioning place with some pretty state-of-the-art kit. “We’ve done him well. Much more than a lot of people would out there.”
Perhaps the most telling change is to the bar area. “Go and stand behind the bar and tell me how it feels,” Corrigan orders in his booming but friendly voice. “The bar (also made of concrete) is too wide. As a bartender you’re too far back. The bar stools are three inches too high. Imagine trying to have a conversation with a customer. It’s impossible to shake anyone’s hand.”
It is this point in particular that sums up the essence of Daffodil Mulligan, the restaurant that Corrigan, alongside fellow Irishmen John Nugent, founder of events and restaurant space Kings Place in King’s Cross, and pub legend Tony Gibney, owner of famous Dublin boozer Gibney’s of Malahide, will open in November in Nuala’s place. Billed as a restaurant and bar with a sport, live music and drinking den below, Daffodil Mulligan will embody old-fashioned Irish hospitality – which, in the trio’s case, often starts with a handshake and a drink or two.
The idea for Daffodil Mulligan seems to have come out of nowhere. On hearing Davidson had closed Nuala, Corrigan’s interest was instantly piqued. The site was snapped up, with the Irish chef later turning to Twitter to confirm that he, Nugent and Gibney ‘were assembling a team’ to take it on. Yet what sounded like an impulse purchase was, in reality, the culmination of a two-decade long search by the trio.
“We always said we’d do it if we found a site north of Oxford Street,” says Nugent who, along with Gibney, has now joined Corrigan on the tour of the space. “At the start we thought Marylebone or Cavendish Square would be the place we would go, but they are not the right areas anymore. Central London has priced itself out of the market for something like this. Here is now where it’s at.”
“We know the area, we know the gig, we know each other,” chips in Corrigan. “It’s not just a collection of old boys saying ‘come on, let’s do this now’, we’ve been looking to open an Irish bar for 20 years. And now we’ve found it.”
A long-lasting friendship
What brings Corrigan – a high-profile chef who has spent the majority of his career in top-end establishments in Soho and Mayfair, currently with Bentley’s on Swallow Street and Corrigan’s Mayfair and before that at Lindsay House (now Gauthier Soho) – Nugent, the chief executive of Green & Fortune, which operates restaurants in Kings Place and Sea Containers, and the former chief executive of contract caterer Searcys; and Gibney, a fifth-generation Dublin landlord, together for such a project?
There’s the obvious Irish connection, but Daffodil Mulligan isn’t three guys looking to rekindle their Irish pasts. None of them knew each other back on the Emerald Isle. “This is not about three Irish guys reminiscing about what life was like together in the motherland,” says Nugent.
So, what is it about then? The answer seems to be a long-lasting friendship forged during their time in the business in London, a shared love and understanding of proper old-school hospitality and conviviality. “We all have a view that a lot of customers will become friends,” says Gibney.
And then there’s their collective appreciation of the hard stuff. Now sitting round the table, all three have no doubt seen the bottom of many a pint and whiskey glass and have the laughter lines and the bellies to prove it. Corrigan’s love of the black stuff, both receiving and giving, is legendary thanks to the annual raucous St Patrick’s Day party he throws at Bentley’s, and all three are known for a late night out “and dragging two or three people with us”, as Corrigan puts it (although he insists these days are behind them: “I can’t behave like I used to. When you’ve been rehydrated a few times, you can’t do it anymore”).
Yet there’s more to this partnership than booze and bonhomie. Neither say they wanted to do another project on their own and only collectively, with their different individual strengths – Corrigan’s food knowledge, Gibney’s understanding of the bar world and Nugent’s operational expertise as well as his strength in events – could Daffodil Mulligan have come about, they insist.
“If this was only an 80-cover restaurant I don’t think any one of us would be interested in doing it,” says Corrigan. “The appeal is the diversity within the opportunity and the different things we can bring to the party. There’s always a risk in doing something new so we wanted to share that risk as well as the knowledge. That’s why the three of us are in this.”
An Irish heart
The trio describe Daffodil Mulligan as being a ground floor restaurant and bar with a pub atmosphere with a large, more pubby area below. As the name suggests, it will have an Irish heart (Daffodil Mulligan is the daughter of famed Irish street trader Biddy Mulligan), with live Irish music and no doubt a lot of Irish whiskey behind the bar, but it won’t be an Irish restaurant. What’s more, the Irish element will be a far cry from those typically associated with London’s Irish pubs, with the trio looking to be part of the next chapter in Ireland’s rich pub history.
“It won’t be Irish themed, we want to define for the next generation what an Irish bar might be,” says an animated Corrigan. “We’re out of Ireland 30-something years. The idea of what we would define as Irish has gone; we’ve been living off James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, but that’s been wiped out. There’s a new edginess to it. It’s so different and so much better.”
To prove his point, he suddenly whips out his phone, opens Spotify and starts to play Lemon 7s, a melancholic song by Irish band A Lazarus Soul about addiction and abuse. His eyes light up as it plays. “In the Irish pub scene people want a mixture of the traditional and also the edgy, their ears are much more finely honed about what’s going on. Creatively, Ireland is in a very cool place. With our combined knowledge, we are going to make Daffodil Mulligan that little bit edgy.”
The aim is to create a space that will function differently throughout the day. Upstairs will be a bar where people can genuinely just come for drinks, which will bleed into the restaurant space. Down below will have a livelier atmosphere, with televised sport and live music. Food will only be served on the ground floor, with the exception of possibly a few bar snacks, making the downstairs bar a large designated drinking area.
As you’d then expect, the restaurant element will be more informal than at Corrigan’s other venues, although everything from the interior design to the dishes served will still be as polished – the trio are spending a total of £1.5m on bringing the space up to their spec. The menu has yet to be written, but Corrigan acknowledges Old Street isn’t Mayfair and that, as such, many mains will be in the £14-£20 bracket.
“We’re really going to nail these prices. London restaurant prices have soared, it can be £150 a head if you buy a nice bottle of wine, which I always do, or £80 or £90 for a rib of beef. But you can we get away with £40 – it won’t be as big, but you don’t need to eat a load of meat anymore. We’ll maybe serve it with a baked potato, some bone marrow butter, done. It’s smaller but thoughtful, simple, tasty.”
There might also be Irish stew to share, at around £38. “For that price, are you going to whinge? Of course not.”
Longitudes and latitudes
When written, the menu will be a tight one-pager, with no distinction between starters and mains. People won’t be encouraged to have three courses but could instead have three small dishes and nothing else. “The food will be fresh and seasonally appropriate,” is Corrigan’s description, with many ingredients coming directly from his Virginia Lodge estate in Ireland. “It’s what you want to eat at that time. I like my food as longitudes and latitudes, but I’m not going to fill up the menu with loads of stodge for no reason.”
The menu’s likely to change quite a bit, too. Hearing Corrigan talk about food is like listening to a passionate music fan talk about their favourite albums, or a football fanatic relive a match in which their arch rivals took a drubbing. It’s fast-paced, instinctive and infections.
What else could be on the menu? “Maybe Dorset clams, split, bang done,” is the quick response. “Or a piece of wild duck with pumpkin, or a pig’s trotter. We could do a ham hock with some beautiful smoked onion sauce with some Colman’s on the side – if it’s cold and wet and wintry, that ham hock sounds absolutely where I want to be.”
The rapid-fire brain dump continues. “How about a starter of citrus couscous with tongue and prune? Or Comté cheese and homemade bread and truffle mustard? Or a prune layered cake for dessert. My spatchcocked Moroccan pheasant will do as good here as it does in Mayfair.
“Our Jerusalem artichoke plot in Ireland is massive. We’ve got the wood-burning oven here. Wouldn’t it be great to throw a load in with the ashes at 11am, crisp them up, split them in two and serve them with some brown butter and sprouting broccoli?
“In east London, the people who are doing it well are doing it really, really well, but a lot of menus feel the same. And there’s a bit too much brown crockery everywhere. What’s wrong with a simple white Churchill plate made in England? The food looks great on it. We’re not afraid to do something different, maybe put a wonderful homemade kebab on that charcoal grill and serve it with pickled Jerusalem artichokes. There are no rules, we don’t have to think about it too much, it’s an understanding that comes with age.”
Three wise men
Ah, the age thing. One can’t help feeling that these three old boys coming to the environs of Shoreditch is a bit out of step with what’s going on in the area. Around the corner is the White Collar Factory, where Honest Burgers and Bone Daddies have taken residency, and cool coffee shop Grind is also close. Further into Shoreditch it’s the likes of Blacklock and the Big Mama Group that are making the most noise. At the risk of offending the interviewees, isn’t Shoreditch a young man’s game?
Not in the slightest is the firm rebuff to this line of reasoning. “The most important thing in this game is wisdom,” says Corrigan, puffing out his cheeks. “The restaurant and bar business is a game of experience, a game of knowledge and understanding – it’s not something you pick up in your 20s. You can maybe write a menu that reads good but doing it every day for a year is harder. Lots of young guys come in here but don’t stay.
“We have age and the wisdom we have gained on the way. Yes, you can build it, but it’s the complete fucking drudgery and monotony and the people letting you down every day that keeps us old bastards moving. Young people want to go out and party and we’re saying, ‘where are you?’. This is a professional industry, it’s not a hobby.”
He continues: “Youngsters don’t have the stamina of some of the older guys. You can put Brian Turner in this kitchen or any of the older boys in London and none of the fucking millennial asshole chefs that I know will match them. After eight hours they are whingeing for their mummies. To earn well in London, you need to work hard. Excellence begins at 60 hours minimum in hospitality – if you think you can do it in less, you ain’t fucking going anywhere. There’s 24 hours in the day, what are you going to do with the other four?”
This might be a grim and somewhat outdated view of the industry, and one that many hold up as a reason for its current staff shortages, but at 55 years old Corrigan isn’t going to change his spots. But beyond this ‘young people never had it so good’ attitude, the trio have used age and experience to their advantage, particularly in their dealings with the landlord.
“The landlord was keen to offer us longer terms, we’re not doing this for three years and leaving,” says Nugent. “People 25 years younger may have been given a five-year lease, but we negotiated hard. Landlords have a very fixed idea of what they want – a third rent increase every five years that sucks everything out, and at the end of a very short period you’re potentially out.
“Young people waste people’s money. They take their mother’s and father’s money, they take their rich uncle’s money, and within three years where is it? We don’t want that. We want to give this to our children.”
“Because our business is hills and valleys, when you go into a valley period the banks panic because you’re young,” adds Gibney. “Youngsters also don’t know how to tell the banks to back off because they haven’t had that experience. It’s not a question of not being good enough but just not being trusted enough.”
“We negotiated it with them on our longer terms,” adds Corrigan, always keen to have the last say. “All investments have to return something over time, and this is not a walk in the park. But it’s our own money, we’re not pressurised by some bank to do this or that. It’s long-term play of 20 years.”
With this in mind, did they speak to Davidson to get the steer on what worked and what didn’t before taking the plunge themselves? Corrigan says he did, but won’t elaborate. “Of course I phoned Niall, it was the most important thing, but I’m not going to tell what he said. He gave me the ins and out of what happened to him, the stresses of opening a place on his own, and I totally sympathise with him.
“He was doing a cracking job but the pressure of paying back money to the bank on a large investment can be catastrophic for restaurants, between paying staff and suppliers, landlords and the debt, there can be nothing in it. You end up in a cashflow quagmire very quickly. Hence why we are sharing the responsibility.”
They are also acutely aware of the challenging market in which they operate. Earlier this year Nugent relaunched Rotunda, the restaurant at Kings Place, with a £1.5m investment to mark its 10-year anniversary, acknowledging that it needed to keep evolving to stay relevant. Corrigan also says that rising rents and rates is making running restaurants increasingly challenging. “The day of a 60-cover restaurant in the West End is over, it makes no financial sense whatsoever. If you took the terrace away from Bentley’s we wouldn’t be there, the rent goes up by £120,00 this year.”
Again, he cites experience as being on his side. “When I was working for Stephen Bull in 1989-90 it was recessionary times, but it was a brilliant education. Often people overstaff [a restaurant], overdress it and so have to overcharge for dishes. A little bit of pared-back thinking goes a long way, it will be the story of the next five years anyway.
“We’ve paid the bills along the way – everyone who works for us gets paid for every hour they work, we’re not mean operators. We’ve never been in liquidation, we’ve survived through thick and thin. I’m not saying nothing bad will ever come around, but it won’t be through negligence on our behalf.”
Channelling the Irish essence
This takes us to the second aspect of Daffodil Mulligan, the subterranean bar that will make use of Gibney’s publican knowledge and of Nugent’s understanding of events.
The bar will show sport and have a late licence (2am Thursday to Saturday) with live jazz and folk music. It will even have a music director in Peter Millican from Kings Place, which they say is unusual for a bar restaurant. “It’s late night but not late night getting arseholed. It’s a place in London for good, welcoming Irish essence, it’s not a boozer,” says Nugent. “It will have a good door policy. We’re not looking to compete with all the late-night venues in Shoreditch and Hoxton.”
“I don’t mind the boozer part,” adds Corrigan. “I want it full of jolly people enjoying themselves. What I don’t do is messy.”
What has Gibney got to say about all of this? As owner of Dublin boozer Gibney’s of Malahide, which Nugent and Corrigan reckon to be one of Dublin’s top five grossing pubs (no mean feat), what’s his vision for an Irish bar in London?
“It’s going to be a pub for all people,” he says. “Young people are not looking for the same thing as people 30 years ago. Twenty years ago, if a group of 10 were in an Irish bar you’d be surprised if they weren’t all drinking alcohol, now you’d be surprised if they all were. It’s a much different scene. People not drinking doesn’t mean they won’t be in the pubs, but they want music and food rather than alcohol.”
Notably, there is no mention of the ‘craic’ by any of them – the rather hackneyed shorthand for fun that is never far away from a traditional Irish bar. But there will be an element of bringing back some old-school publicanism, however. “Breweries are kicking out long-term landlords and bringing in kids on £10 an hour,” says Nugent. “You can walk in and get a drink at 10.55pm and at 11.05pm they’ll take it off you. That’s not hospitality. We’ll be doing things differently.”
This means six to eight beers on tap (“not the trendy 30 beers sitting in the pipes getting old”) and some bar staff on beer duty only (“you can’t have five people making cocktails and 10 people waiting on pints”).
There will also be table service, something which Corrigan says is very important in bars. “In Ireland this just happens, but unless you’re in a hotel in London, it’s not a thing.”
With different areas tapping into different day parts – the downstairs bar will have private booths that can be reserved for sporting fixtures – a strong music leaning (Corrigan says people might be able to book a slot to bring in their albums to play), and all-day food offer, the trio look to building a neighbourhood ‘gaff’, as they call it, with all the bases covered. As Nugent says: “We need to be doing business every part of the day. We can’t have a lull in the afternoon, we need people through the door at all times. We want people aged 18 to 45 to feel like this is their place.”
Ploughing his own furrow
Even though it has been a long-held dream for Corrigan, one can’t help wondering how he in particular will cope with the departure from the more upscale dining for which he’s better known, and also being away from his central London heartland. In characteristic energetic style he brushes the point away, citing his move from working at chef/restaurateur Stephen Bull’s Blandford Street restaurant in Marylebone, to Irish pub and restaurant Mulligan’s which, at the time, some regarded as a step sideways rather than upwards.
“My career doesn’t need a step up all the time,” he says, with the confidence of a man comfortable ploughing his own furrow. “You can do round the rounds and take experience from different things. Life’s a journey. What are you going to do, sit down and think ‘that’s it’? I’d be bored just sitting around drinking fine wine and telling all the youngsters how I’ve done it.”
One suspects if he ever did choose to do that though, he’d be very good at it.
This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the September 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.