Adam White has a weakness for architecturally-divisive real estate. His influential Riding House Café restaurant on Great Titchfield Street is at the bottom of a staggeringly unbecoming 1950s building and his follow-up – Rail House Café – is at the heart of Victoria’s Nova development, the recipient of architectural booby prize the Carbuncle Cup.
Due to launch in Bloomsbury’s The Brunswick Centre early next year, his House Café Company’s third venue picks up the theme and runs with it. Completed in the early 1970s, the mixed-use development is among London’s most controversial buildings: some see it as a brutalist masterpiece, but those less sympathetic to modernist architecture regard it as an eyesore.
As a Brompton-riding design school graduate, White is firmly in the former camp. “I love it,” he grins. “There’s lots of natural light. We plan to juxtapose the hard concrete exterior with a soft and welcoming interior.”
The 49-year-old sees a lot of similarities with Bloomsbury now and Fitzrovia a decade ago when he opened Riding House Café. “They used to call Fitzrovia Noho. Nobody remembers that anymore, which says a lot," he says, alluding to the fact that over the past 10 years or so Fitzrovia has gone from largely being a no man’s land to a major restaurant hub.
“Once again, we have found a village where we can make an impact. It’s a very mixed area. To the north of The Brunswick Centre it’s nearly all high-rise residential, but to the south there are media officers, including Warner Bros, Industrial Light & Magic and MediaCom, and Lamb’s Conduit Street, which is quirky and aspirational,” continues White, who is not the first to see the potential in The Brunswick Centre, which is already home to MEATliquor, Slim Chickens, art house cinema Curzon and – perhaps most tellingly – a Waitrose.
White believes that the two neighbourhoods are so similar, in fact, that he has opted to call his latest project Riding House Café Bloomsbury, creating a more direct link with the restaurant project for which he is best known than his second venue.
“The demographic, geography and timing of Bloomsbury has given us an opportunity to have a journey resembling our original experience in Fitzrovia,” he says. “I was so busy trying to reinvent the wheel with Rail House Café that I took for granted all the things that were great about Riding House Café.”
Shaking up the pub scene
Brought up in New Zealand, White studied industrial design on Australia’s Gold Coast and came to London with the intention of making his fortune in the design industry.
“Cars were the dream but by the end of it I would have designed anything. I must have had hundreds of rejection letters,” says White, who fell into hospitality in the early 1990s pulling pints in central London pubs to make ends meet.
He ended up running The Castle in Holland Park, which was part of west London’s gastropub movement. It was an exciting time to be in pubs. “People were ripping out the carpets and getting actual chefs to cook the food. When I first came to London it was shocking, pubs were serving little more than sausage, chips and beans,” he says.
Such was The Castle’s success, White ended up working with Ed Turner – who would go on to become a key figure at foodie pub group Geronimo Inns – to design a scalable gastropub blueprint for Mitchells & Butlers.
In 2003, White teamed up with friend Clive Watson to launch The Garrison on Bermondsey Street. Best described as a modern and female friendly take on a pub - at the time the gastropub aesthetic was quite masculine - it was a smash hit.
“There was nothing of note on Bermondsey Street back then, but the area was full of young creatives and there was a huge amount of development planned,” he says.
This pretty cream-tiled former boozer would establish White’s MO: take an unloved building in an up-and-coming area that is only just starting to be reappraised and make it suitable for an aspirational audience while still being accessible and laidback.
The Garrison was also a pioneer of all-day dining in London, with White and Watson taking inspiration from both New York and Chris Corbin and Jeremy King’s recently opened The Wolseley to bring breakfast and brunch menus to the pub environment.
Its success led to White and Watson opening a second Bermondsey Street site – Village East – and, in 2011, taking a punt on a Fitzrovia building that had seen five flops in a row (it had most recently traded as ‘Chutney & Lager’) to launch Riding House Café.
“Like Bermondsey Street that bit of Fitzrovia had been overlooked despite having a good demographic mix. The BBC is just round the corner and there’s also a lot of fashion round there. With glass on three sides, it also had a lot of light which was good news for breakfast trade.”
Riding House Café’s menu has evolved considerably over the years but retains its global feel and suitability for practically any dining scenario. There are currently three food menus – breakfast; weekend brunch; and lunch and dinner – but there is some overlap between them.
Menus are constructed with regulars in mind – there are lots of healthy options and many dishes can customised with extras. Example dishes include malted deep dish with smoked streaky Dingley Dell bacon with maple syrup; smashed avocado, sourdough, dill salsa, chilli coriander, hazelnut and seed dukka; hake with brown shrimp, crispy seaweed; and white chocolate cheesecake with blood orange jam.
A parting of ways
Packed all through the day, Riding House Café turned heads when it opened but the pressure and attention that came with running such a successful venture took its toll on White and Watson’s relationship, with the pair parting ways a few years after it launched.
“Clive and I had an amazing 10 years. He's a great and talented guy and I loved working with him. The success of Riding House Café was overwhelming and affected us in different ways. I found those first few years hard,” says White, who ended up retaining Riding House Café and Village East (The Garrison was sold off).
“We had so much fun when the friendship was more important than the business. I wish it had stayed that way, but the business became all-consuming.”
The splitting of the company resulted in White taking on a business that was his alone with no partners other than the bank. Unusually, he stuck to this funding model with Rail House Café, seeking no funding other than a bank loan despite the opening requiring a much larger upfront investment than any of his previous projects
“Landsec (Nova’s developer) offered me a pretty amazing deal and it wasn’t a typical high street development. They had D&D London [Aster] and Jason Atherton going in there [Hai Cenato]. It was a big departure though as I’d never done something in a glass box.”
White went to great to lengths to give the space its own character, coming up with a highly effective restaurant design that essentially saw another building created within the confines of the towering space given to him by Landsec.
Rail House Café is a beautifully designed restaurant that makes you forget you’re dining in a big glass box. The 330-cover space takes most of its design cues from the Colonial era and aims to recreate the buzz of a bustling metropolitan station.
"It worked well but it was incredibly expensive. I'd never done a new build, or a development and I learnt every lesson one can learn. The main one being don't open first and definitely don't believe the dream that everyone is going to open on the same day and there's going to be a big party. It doesn't happen like that.
“They were still laying the paving slabs to my front door the day we opened. People had to pick their way through a building site to find us.”
White wasn’t alone in finding Nova tough, with many other operators reporting a painfully slow start due to lack of footfall. On top of this, White’s decision to make Rail House Café as stylistically different to Riding House Café as possible also caused him a few headaches.
“I lost out on a lot of sleep over it,” he admits. “But now it does as well as Riding House Cafe and has done so for a couple of years.”
In late 2019, White relaunched the site that was once home to Village East as Loyal Tavern in partnership with chef Tom Cenci. The timing was unfortunate to say the least, with Cenci announcing in July 2020 that Loyal Tavern would not be reopening as a direct result of the pandemic.
The economic challenges of Victoria and more recently Covid have seen White rethink his approach to financing his projects. “It was just me and the bank. It all felt very lonely,” he says. “At the start there was a lot of uncertainty and that brought about some really emotional moments for me. But things worked out. The Covid loans were a big help, and our landlords were very reasonable. We didn’t make a single person redundant.”
Through the various lockdowns, Riding House Café became an upmarket grocery shop and produced meal kits, which ended up reconnecting it with its local, loyal customers, some of whom – it turned out – wanted to invest. “We certainly had enough time to discuss it. Fortunately, it is only people who love our product, who want to be involved and can add value,” he says.
Expected to open in the spring, Riding House Café Bloomsbury will occupy the former site of Carluccio’s and will be around 20% bigger than its Fitzrovia older sibling. Two basement areas that were used only for storage as Carluccio’s are being reconfigured, creating a space with 165 covers inside and a further 65 covers outside - three times as many seats and more room between them than previously.
While it certainly won’t be a carbon copy, the design playbook will be comparable to that of Riding House Café. “We haven’t needed to do much to the original Riding House site because it didn’t follow any design fads. We were going for a timeless feel. The materials were robust. It was designed to wear and become a neighbourhood institution.”
Like Riding House Café, there will be two distinct zones, a casual area more geared towards all-day dining and a marginally more formal restaurant area. Design details will include overflowing foliage in the windows, retro fridges and large mahogany Tannoy speakers built into the bar.
The menu will also be comparable to that of Riding House Café, although it will further explore executive chef Henry Omereye’s Caribbean heritage, building on from its lockdown At Home offer that featured dishes such as curry mutton; and salt cod fritters with Bajan pepper sauce.
“At Nova we tried to approach the menu differently and that didn’t go down well. We had green tea waffles instead of our pancakes, which we had to quickly put right. The menu will be an evolution of Riding House Café; this next journey is an opportunity to try new things, though within the confines of what we are known for.”
Depending on how successful Bloomsbury is, White may look at further openings for the group, but is adamant he won’t be tempted by the glut of good value opportunities out there currently.
“We have been able to focus on what is really important to our guests,” he says. “We are really enjoying the journey with no shareholders, only looking at opportunities if we are ready and very excited about it. Otherwise, you end up producing a vanilla restaurant.”