For Rita’s founders Missy Flynn and Gabe Pryce, opening their first full-service restaurant in central London represents more than a just move into the mainstream. “For us, it feels more like a homecoming,” says Flynn, purposefully. “Gabe and I both grew up in central London. It’s very poignant to be opening on a street that had such an impact on our own restaurant experiences.”
The street to which Flynn refers is Lexington Street in Soho, where she and Pryce will soon open their second bricks and mortar iteration of Rita’s; the modern American dining concept the pair founded back in 2012. One of the first to the party in terms of trendy east London pop ups, Rita’s initially operated out of a converted toilet unit above Dalston nightclub Birthdays. In 2013, Flynn and Pryce graduated to a larger stand-alone site on Mere Street in Hackney, but that restaurant subsequently closed in 2016.
Rita’s’ culinary offering has, in the past, been billed as ‘American comfort food’, and in a traditional sense that was certainly the pillar of the original pop-up menu. Dishes included a fried chicken roll, which has become a mainstay of the brand; and a patty melt featuring a burger topped with grilled cheese that was inspired by a dish from Waverly Diner in New York City, which Pryce regularly visited while at college over there.
“It was mostly fried food on those early menus,” recalls Pryce, clear to add that there’s more to his interpretation of American comfort food than just junk food staples. Rita’s is, in fact, inspired by the global melting pot of culinary cultures found across the US, with particular reference to Mexico and Italy. “The genesis of using America as a touchpoint wasn’t about focusing on classic comfort food dishes, and it isn’t now; we served that menu because it was what we were able to do in the space we had.
“America is where I learnt about food and had many of my key experiences. Even though we don’t think about it in such terms, it’s still an incredibly new country made up of everywhere else in the world. People have come there from all over the globe and brought with them the foods that comfort them the most.”
An evolved concept
Flynn and Pryce spent around three years having discussions with the landlord to try and secure the Lexington Street site. “We actually lost it at one point,” concedes Pryce. “It’s taken a really long time to find a new home for Rita’s, and we probably couldn’t have done it without the impact of the pandemic and what that’s done to the property market.
“The spot we’ve got is perfect; if you have the opportunity to open a restaurant on the same street as Andrew Edmunds and Mildred’s then, having grown up in London, it’s a no brainer.”
"It’s taken a really long time to find a new home for Rita’s"
It’s taken around a year since securing the site to get it into a position where it’s nearly ready to open for indoor service – a terrace area in front of the restaurant launched temporarily over the summer. In the intervening time, Flynn and Pryce temporarily turned the space into a bottle shop selling natural, low intervention, and biodynamic wines; a range of deli items; hampers; and premixed cocktails.
As has always been the way, Pryce will oversee the food at Rita’s Soho, while Flynn will manage the front of house. The menu can fairly be described as an evolution of what’s come before, augmented by ideas and inspirations the pair have developed in the years since they closed the Mere Street site.
“I’ve grown a lot as a chef in that time,” says Pryce, reflectively. “I worked a lot at the Marksman and Brawn with chefs I respect and have come to know as friends; I didn’t realise how much that would teach me. The sourcing of ingredients has always mattered, but we’ve put it really front and centre this time.”
Mexico remains a key point of reference, Pryce partnering with a local London grower who will supply a range of authentic produce including cucamelon (Mexican cucumbers) and tomatillos. Elsewhere there will be a focus on whole and half animal butchery, with Swaledale providing the meat.
Being environmentally focused is key: “We’re putting sustainability first, which will have a huge influence on what we put on the plate.” Dishes are expected to change regularly, with the menu featuring a selection of both small and large sharing plates.
Smaller options will comprise jalapeño popper gildas; hot bean devilled eggs; hand-chopped raw beef dressed with raw vegetables and wilted mustard leaf; lobster on toast; and salt cod taquitos. Larger dishes will include grilled sugar pit pork collar; whole fish a la plancha; and steak dinner for two served with ‘all the trimmings’.
Pryce says the restaurant will be designed as a ‘comfy neighbourhood bistro’ that will appeal both to long-time followers of the brand and those unfamiliar with it who are just after a decent bite to eat. Based on the terrace menu, prices across the board are likely to be approachable, with many plates ranging from £5 to £10.
“If you want to know everything about what we do and where the inspiration behind the dishes comes from, you can; but if you don’t want to know then you don’t have to, and you can have just as an enriching time.
“The food is more refined than it used to be. The sourcing is exciting us, and we have a playbook of places that have always influenced us – we subtly reference those in the flavours and the dishes we’re creating.”
Rita’s was born out of Flynn and Pryce’s desire to see more restaurants geared specifically towards their demographic. “We were both in our early 20s at the time and felt a mutual lack of something that scratched an itch for us as young people who had grown up in the capital and were really into food and drink,” she explains. “Now when people talk about the east London scene, they mean restaurants. But back then it was an area geared more primarily towards clubbing and events.”
Pryce elaborates further. “I had recently returned from living in New York where going out to dinner with friends was part of your evening in a way it wasn’t over here at the time for people of our age. And so I wanted to create a space where people could enjoy that part of the night more.
“At the time the notion of having restaurant pop-ups within venues was still relatively new. We were given £2,000 to turn a toilet area of Birthdays into a kitchen. And that’s where it started, with very simple ideas of serving food in an environment where people could also have fun.”
Flynn has worked in hospitality since she was 18, starting as a bartender and then progressing to becoming an assistant marketing manager at Hawksmoor, which she credits with giving her an insight into successfully creating a high-level casual dining concept built on high quality and experience; something that stood her and Pryce in good stead when Rita’s relocated to Mere Street.
“The transition from Dalston to Hackney was difficult, but super exciting,” she says. “We were in our mid-twenties and running a restaurant, which was terrifying, but we had a real respect for what the job entailed.”
Knowledge and training have always been the two key elements of the Rita’s brand that Flynn and Pryce pride themselves on. “Nurturing our team members has been and still is one of the most rewarding parts of the job,” continues Flynn. “Given the global scope of our menu, we’ve always wanted our staff to have a true understanding and respect for the food we serve.
“From the beginning we’ve been very conscious of not just culturally appropriating dishes and cuisines. It’s not about taking recipes and repurposing them; it’s about translating different experiences and different places through food. That’s why the training is so important. It’s why we gave our teams a knowledge bible and had a glossary of sauces. We were a fun and casual restaurant but rooted in purpose, and that validated us.”
Pause for thought
The eventual closure of Mere Street – for reasons that the pair don’t elaborate on – was a blow, but it gave them an opportunity to recalibrate. “Losing Mere Street was really hard,” says Flynn. “We were sad to close it, and we needed to know if we actually wanted to do it again. And if we could, how we would do it differently?”
A period of travel and extensive research followed, beginning with a trip to Mexico. “That was by far the most important trip of my life,” picks up Pryce. “If we were going to have another restaurant one day, it was crucial for us to know that we could stand behind what we do.
“I had an obsession with Mexico but had never been before. Missy had spent a lot of time there, though, so she took me. We were there for three months, which completely opened my mind to new ideas and food experiences. It allowed us to explore the origins of a lot of the ingredients we used, and the environments they exist within.”
"In the time since we first opened Rita’s the entire restaurant and dining scene in London has changed, but no one has done what we do"
Trips to north America followed, interspersed by with a series of residencies in the capital and the launch of a new offshoot brand called Bodega Rita’s (more on that in a moment). Eventually, though, their attentions returned to finding a new site for Rita’s.
“It’s interesting, in the time since we first opened Rita’s the entire restaurant and dining scene in London has changed,” notes Flynn. “But no one has done what we do. If they had I don’t think we would be here now opening a new restaurant.”
Rita’s Soho is not Flynn and Pryce’s first foray into central London. The pair opened global deli and sandwich store Bodega Rita's at the Coal Drops Yard development in Kings Cross. The space was small (198sq ft, to be exact), but the ambition was big. While the Rita’s restaurant feels like a singular entity, the Bodega brand has been designed with scalability in mind.
To that end, the pair took the decision to close the Kings Cross site last year as a result of the pandemic and relocate it to a larger space in Clerkenwell. The menu at Bodega Rita’s features a concise list of American-style subs packed with punchy flavours, each born from Flynn and Pryce's appreciation and research into culinary expressions and dishes from around the globe.
Signature sandwich options include The Tony, a classic deli sub filled to the brim with pesto, prosciutto, spiced salami ventricina, smoked cheese, pickled salad and cheese dust; The King Banh Mi, a vegan take on a staple Vietnamese baguette, with roasted oyster mushrooms, peanut butter, carrot and daikon pickle, coriander, mint, peanuts and pickled chilli; and The Second City, with fennel roast pork belly and crackling, seasoned greens, 'high five spicy mayo', crispy shallots, parmesan pork dust and lemon oil, on a house hoagie roll.
“Bodega Rita’s is more commercially driven, but specifically designed to channel the same ethos and ideas we’ve always had,” says Flynn. “We want it to be fun and approachable, and broad enough from a business point of view to play around with as we look to expand.”
While all concentration right now is on getting the Soho restaurant up and running, the intention is to eventually focus on growing the Bodega brand and use it as a test bed for different concepts.
“Once we have established Rita’s we can look at do new versions of Bodega. We see it as a flexible arm of the business and already have a few ideas of what we could do with it.”