Nico Simeone: the chef reinventing fine dining for the masses

By James McAllister

- Last updated on GMT

Nico Simeone the Glasgow-born chef reinventing fine dining for the masses restaurant

Related tags: Fine dining, Restaurant

Having opened six restaurants in three years, Nico Simeone has expanded his ‘ever-evolving’ tasting menu concept at an unprecedented rate. With a move to the capital imminent, he’s showing no sign of slowing down

Nico Simeone never serves the same menu twice. Well, almost never. When he opened his first Six by Nico restaurant in his home city of Glasgow back in March 2017, he served a tasting menu named The Chippie. A tribute to Simeone’s Italian grandparents, who owned a chip shop business, it took the nostalgic flavours of battered fish and smoked saveloys and presented them with a creative finesse that was more akin to fine dining than fast food.

Think cheesy chips, but reimagined as a potato cannelloni with curd cheese mousse; or a fish supper featuring Shetland cod and served with sea vegetables, pickled mussels and taramasalata. Then there was Simeone’s take
on that most classic of Scottish dishes, the deep-fried Mars Bar, which comprised salted caramel with chocolate nougat and a malt parfait.

Since then, Simeone has gone on to explore various ideas and cuisines through his Six by Nico dining concept, which revolves around a single six-course tasting menu that’s ripped up and replaced every six weeks. Whenever he launches a new restaurant, though, he returns to that original theme.

And so it goes that Restaurant​ finds itself feasting on The Chippie when we sit down to eat in the chef’s recently opened Six by Nico site in Liverpool. The menu’s structure remains the same, but the dishes have certainly changed. The cheesy chips now feature a salt and vinegar potato croquette in parmesan espuma, drizzled with curry oil (pictured); the fish supper is still cod, but now served with confit fennel, samphire, beer-pickled mussels and brandade; and the deep-fried Mars Bar sees chocolate mousse served with orange sorbet and cocoa nib.

Visually, there is great attention to detail on show here. The portions are small and the plating precise, if perhaps a little stylistically dated at times. The pork belly smoked sausage with salt-baked celeriac, caramelised apple
and black pudding, for example, is presented under a glass cloche pumped with applewood smoke that rises dramatically into the air as the cover is removed.

Yet among the theatrical flourishes, what also comes across is the storytelling behind Simeone’s cooking. In his own words, Six by Nico uses “food as a narrative”, with different menus inspired by personal experiences and memories; innovative fine dining with a very individual touch. All this considered then, it doesn’t immediately appear to be the sort of restaurant concept that could be grown on any sort of scale. And yet the Liverpool restaurant is the sixth to be opened by Simeone under the brand in fewer than three years.

"Tasting menus are often viewed as a
stuffy option. I wanted to turn that
notion on its head"

Experimental dining

Six by Nico was ostensibly born out of a need to offer something new. “We had this site in Glasgow we were struggling to fill,” he says, reflecting on the restaurant’s inception. “There were plenty of very good fine dining and casual options in the area, and we were keen to establish ourselves as a viable alternative. So we began thinking about a more experimental approach to dining; where we could move between different dishes and cuisines, depending on what interested us at the time; and the menu could change regularly to reflect different stories and ideas.”

A tasting menu seemed like an obvious medium to explore, Simeone having had a professional affinity with them going back to his days working in the kitchen at the Number One Restaurant at The Balmoral in Edinburgh. “That’s where I learnt the importance of balance in a meal,” he says. “When you’re creating a tasting menu, it shouldn’t just be about individual courses, you have to think of it as a whole. You want to make sure there’s a symmetry in the flavours; a richer dish should be followed by something lighter, and perhaps more piquant.”

Having tested different themes and approaches over several pilot evenings at his other Glasgow restaurant, 111 by Nico (launched in 2015), Simeone gradually conceived his idea. Positioning the restaurant in such a way to ensure it was accessible to as broad a demographic as possible was crucial. The entire six-course menu was initially priced at £25 [it’s since been raised to £29], with a corresponding wine pairing offered for roughly double the price.

“Tasting menus are often viewed as a more stuffy and expensive dining option, and I wanted to turn that notion on its head,” he says. “Six by Nico was an opportunity to give guests an experience that felt unique, and prove that luxurious dining didn’t have to come with a hefty price tag.”

The concept proved popular. People were drawn in by the intrigue and mystery of Six by Nico, with Simeone placing a lot of emphasis on not revealing what the next menu would be until two weeks before it was set to be served at the restaurant. The Chippie was followed by Childhood, which featured an egg and soldiers course of smoked haddock, asparagus, and confit yolk; and a ‘Viennetta’ dessert with white chocolate parfait, rhubarb, and ‘pick n mix’ toppings. Later came a menu based on a journey along Route 66, with the distinctive flavours of Texas, New Mexico, and California each inspiring their own individual dish.

Within a year, he had launched a sister restaurant in Edinburgh, and his mind was already thinking towards the next step. “Growing the brand was something I really wanted to explore,” he says in an unassuming tone. “We’d been talking about for it for a while, and I had drawn up a list of four or five potential locations outside of Scotland I wanted to take it to. Belfast and Manchester were two cities I specifically had my eye on, and we quickly managed to acquire sites in both. From there, the pace and momentum just gathered.”

An astonishing expansion drive saw Simeone add four more Six by Nico restaurants to his portfolio in 2019. First came Belfast, which opened in the city’s lively Cathedral Quarter in March. Then, in July, came Manchester: Simeone’s first restaurant venture south of the border.

Back home, customer demand at his Glasgow flagship eventually compelled him to open a satellite restaurant within the Southside space he had been using as a development kitchen, which launched in October. The following month, Six by Nico also arrived in Liverpool.

As the business has grown, so has the size of the restaurants. While the original Glasgow dining room only holds 38 covers, every site acquired since has a capacity of 60-plus. In total, around 40,000 guests currently dine at Six by Nico over the course of a six-week cycle. And now Simeone has his sights set on increasing that figure by bringing the brand to London, with a site in Fitzrovia due to open this spring​.  

Salt and vinegar potato croquette with parmesan espuma and curry oil

Breaking new ground

The speed at which Six by Nico has grown, particularly in the past year, could appear to be impulsive, or even reckless, from an outsider’s perspective. But for Simeone, the popularity of the concept has made it par for the course.

“Most restaurants go through a couple of periods of change every year, but we’re constantly evolving,” he says. “People don’t just come to us for a meal, they also come for the story behind it. It’s risky; the nature of the concept means we’re constantly taking ideas that have connected with diners and throwing them away in favour of trying something new. But in doing so we’ve created something that nobody has really done before.”

Presenting these culinary narratives through the format of a tasting menu further adds to the appeal. “We regularly have people telling us how our concept has allowed them to try things they would never normally have ordered. It encourages them to engage with different foods, and draws them out of their comfort zone.”

Social media has also proved to be an invaluable tool. Early on, Instagram was harnessed as a platform not only to introduce the concept to a wider audience, but also to show off different themes and dishes; the announcement of a new menu often comes with its own high production value trailer, which regularly features Simeone in a central role; a curious contrast to the man himself, who by his own admission prefers to operate largely behind the scenes in his restaurants.

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An ‘ever-evolving’ concept

Simeone accepts that Six by Nico shares much of its DNA with classical fine dining. Yet it’s telling that, when asked, he prefers to not specifically label his food as such. “For me the whole emphasis is in offering a menu that can be framed as fine dining, but remains affordable,” he says, noting a dish that recently appeared on his Mad Hatter’s Tea Party menu. Playfully titled Cheshire Copycat, it was a riff on Dinner by Heston’s iconic meat fruit dish and featured chicken liver parfait, orange jelly and toasted sourdough.

“It’s about breaking down barriers,” he continues. “A dish like that can cost around £25 on its own, but here it comes as part of a six-course menu that costs less than £30 in total. Six by Nico is built around accessibility; we’re showing that skilful, perceptive cooking doesn’t have to cost the earth.”

His thematic style may be avant-garde in nature, but there’s something very traditional about the set course structure of the menus. Each meal begins with an amuse-bouche, followed by two starters, a fish course, a meat-based main, and finally a dessert.

Beyond being able to fit the framework, the only real rule is that each course must have its own bespoke vegetarian substitute. On the most recent iteration of The Chippie, for example, the cheesy chips featured a goat’s cheese espuma to replace the parmesan; beer-battered cauliflower provided an alternative to the monkfish cheek scampi; and the smoked sausage swapped pork belly for a blend of sweet potato and feta.

Dishes are primarily developed in Simeone’s Glasgow Southside kitchen space. “The primary challenge for us now is to make sure the food consistently feels fresh and exciting,” says the chef. “At the start there were just a few of us working on the menus, and it sometimes felt like we were struggling to keep up. But as we’ve grown the business, the whole operation has changed; we have a larger team, and the chance to invest a greater amount of time discussing and developing different ideas. We’re always at least one or two steps ahead now, so it’s a much more grounded process.”

Inspiration for a theme can come from anywhere. “Destinations provide the most obvious source of influence,” says Simeone, as he talks through the development stage. “There’s always a wealth of recognisable dishes and flavours that we can draw from. With Paris it was French onion soup; with Catalonia, paella; and with New York, cheesecake. They’re my favourite menus to create. I love going and immersing myself in a different culture, tasting the food, and then coming back and recreating it in my own style.”

Simeone freely admits that the building of a menu isn’t always easy. While some have come together in a matter of days, others have taken weeks. In a few cases, a menu has even been finalised and then subsequently revised after being served to customers; a shellfish dish that initially featured a side of fermented porridge proving to be a particular low point. “I probably should have realised the two wouldn’t complement each other,” he says with a wry smile. “But hey, you live and learn.”

Pork belly wrapped in salt-baked celeriac, caramelised apple and black pudding

Maintaining the operation

Of course, as the group continues to grow, ensuring consistency across all sites will be key, but he doesn’t appear to see it as a challenge. When asked if it’s something that can be maintained, he says yes, without hesitation.
All sites are closed on Mondays, with Simeone using that as an opportunity to liaise with his different kitchen teams and discuss with them any additions or changes to the menu.

What’s more, every time a new theme is about to be launched, Simeone flies the head chefs from each restaurant up to Glasgow so he can brief them on each new dish personally. He describes himself as not being someone who believes in running a restaurant business from behind a desk; visiting each of his restaurants at least once every 10 days, helping out with the kitchen service and working with floor staff to ensure the operation runs smoothly.

In general, the concept is designed so as to ensure every restaurant serves the same menu at the same time. The most notable exception being when a new site launches with its own iteration of The Chippie, Simeone subsequently bringing it into line with the others at the end of the first six-week cycle.

“It isn’t easy,” he accepts, “but we’re fortunate that we have a passionate team who are keen to learn and develop within the company.”

"It's about breaking down
barriers. Six by Nico is
built around accessibility"

London calling

Remarkably, given the scale of his operation, Simeone says he’s received no outside investment, and has instead funded Six by Nico’s expansion out of his own pocket, with a focus on investing in the right city and the right location.  

“I always say I want to be there or thereabouts,” he says. “Our business is driven by bookings rather than walk-ins, so rather than concentrate on trying to secure a location within a prime footfall area, I like to try and focus on surrounding myself with other independently-run bars and restaurants. I like the idea of businesses being able to feed off each other, and Six by Nico is very much positioned to be a part of your night, not the thing that defines it.”

Bringing Six by Nico to the capital was always Simeone’s ultimate goal, but not something he wanted to do until he was certain he could make it work. “If I’d never done it, then it would always be something that was hanging over me. It presents a completely new challenge for me personally, and for the business as a whole. But if I do everything in my power to make it a success, then it’s never something I can be disappointed by.”

Six by Nico London will follow the same formula as Simeone’s other sites, albeit with a slightly inflated price tag to compensate for the higher rent and rates that inevitably come with opening a restaurant in the capital. Instead of £29, the price will be set at between £33 and £35; an increased mark-up, certainly, but still more than accessible when compared with the tasting menu prices found at other restaurants in Fitzrovia.

The question is, having come to the capital, where does Simeone take the brand next? He insists he won’t expand as aggressively as he did in 2019, but certainly doesn’t intend for this to be the only Six by Nico restaurant to open this year. “Dublin is another place I’ve had my eye on for some time,” he says.

“Geographically, establishing a site there would be ideal as it could act as a support to our restaurant in Belfast; in the same way that Glasgow and Edinburgh do, and Manchester and Liverpool. And if we’re able to establish a second London site too, and do the same there, then operationally we would have much more security.”

“I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, though,” he continues. “At the moment my mind is on getting London sorted, and I don’t want to distract myself from that. But once that’s up and running, we’ll see how the ground lies.”

This feature first appeared in the February 2020 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​.

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