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17 April 2014

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Interview with Bleeding Heart’s Robyn Wilson

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Robyn and Robert Wilson_Bleeding Heart 2013 - Robyn_and_Robert_Wilson_Bleeding_Heart_2013_2.jpgRestaurateurs Robert and Robyn Wilson opened Farringdon’s Bleeding Heart in 1983 when the venue had a wine bar and just 10 tables. They have since expanded the existing business and established two further eateries – Bleeding Heart Tavern and Bleeding Heart Bistro – on site, plus The Don, another business-lunch favourite in the heart of the City. The original Bleeding Heart turns 30 today – to celebrate this achievement, Square Meal chatted to Robyn about how the City dining scene has changed over the past three decades, her best memories, and what lies in store for her restaurants.

Did you set up the restaurant with a masterplan to expand the business and take on more sites – and did you think the business would last 30 years?

Robert and I met as journalists, and because we did all of our interviews in restaurants over lunch, we became very experienced customers. When we started Bleeding Heart, we started from the point of view of the customer, and we thought about what our customers would want. We didn’t have a business plan and neither of us had any experience in the restaurant industry, but banks were so much more relaxed then – so many people were starting businesses, and the rent was £1 per square foot. We were lucky that we had a friendly bank manager who liked wine, and a couple of friends who were great wine lovers. We found a really good restaurant manager who knew about wine, and when we showed him our little hole in the ground he came on board and brought two French waitresses with him. We started as a wine bar with a simple food menu. Nowadays, we wouldn’t be able to set up like we did – we would have to go to the bank with a five-year business plan and provide personal guarantees.

Did you have a back-up plan in case the restaurant failed?

We never thought it wasn’t going to work. We knew people like wine, and we had a great wine list. Food wasn’t as competitive then – people just chose a restaurant based on the type of food it offered, rather than expecting something different or edgy. Our restaurants work because they are neighbourhood restaurants really, just located in a neighbourhood of businesses. People will walk five to 10 minutes from their office to get here, so we are local to them. Locals will come two or three times a week – in fact, one man who has just retired, used to ring us up if he wasn’t coming because we always reserved him a table!

What was the London dining scene like when you first started out?

When we launched Bleeding Heart, Fleet Street was still in its heyday, so the restaurant got very busy very quickly. Journalists from the Daily Mirror, The Times, The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph were all regulars, conducting all their interviews over lunch. There were also lots of law and accountancy firms, as there are now. The 1980s and 90s was the era of the long lunch, so people would ask for a quiet table and stay there all afternoon. A lot of people who were meeting people they weren’t supposed to meet asked for a dark corner – the restaurant was quite dark and louche in the beginning. At that time, people would drink so much more – they’d have an aperitif before lunch, order a bottle of red and a bottle of white for a table of two, and have a glass of port with their cheese, or a digestif after the meal. They were really long lunches. This trend did tail off with the Americanisation of the banks, because they didn’t encourage drinking at work, so there was a real disincentive for people to go back to the office with a ‘post-lunch glow’.

Our prices have also changed – in the 1990s, dishes were priced at around £2.75. I remember the restaurant being featured in the City Limits guide in a piece about the 50 Best Wine Bars. They said our Premier Cru Chablis was ‘a bit pricey’– at £12!

Bleeding Heart - Bleeding_Heart_2011_-_Bleeding_Heart_Sign.jpg

Being located in the City, have you noticed a change in diners’ behaviour since the recession hit?

The 1987 downturn didn’t affect our business at all, and the 1993 recession actually increased business for us – people would come for lunch at Bleeding Heart to retreat. It was only when the current crisis hit that people stopped drinking so very expensively at lunch. Up until then, a table of two would spend £600-700 on lunch, and the bulk of that would go on wine. When the crisis hit, people started conducting business meetings in the evening instead – we do more turnover in the evenings now than at lunchtimes. And because people are doing company business on their own time, they decide they’re jolly well going to expense it to the company.

What are your greatest memories from your time at Bleeding Heart?

On Friday nights we always used to be quiet because the City was closed, so in 1986 we introduced a Friday-night offer of a magnum of Heidsieck Champagne for £17.95. We never advertised it, but word got out and people would end up queueing out in the yard to get in before the offer ended at 7pm. Our plan was that people would stay on for dinner, but that didn’t happen – instead, we had people ringing up from all over London telling us they were on their way and trying to give us their credit-card details to reserve their magnum. After about a year and a half, it was getting dangerous – people were really knocking back the Champagne and no one was staying on for dinner, so we decided to stop.

Nowadays on Friday nights, staff will often spot couples that have just got engaged, or see someone pulling out a ring at the table. Often it’s quite obvious, and we always give them Champagne. We have had chaps delivering the ring to us earlier in the day to be brought out with dessert. Only once have we had a guy get down on one knee, with all of the customers cheering.

Since the Bleeding Heart restaurants are so steeped in history, have you ever had any spooky moments, or seen ghosts of Lady Elizabeth Hatton (who was murdered on the site)?

The first Christmas we were open, we had a big wine delivery coming to the restaurant very early the next morning so our restaurant manager decided to stay the night. He woke up at 2am and was convinced he heard ladies’ heels walking around overhead.

Bleeding Heart Tavern - Tavern BLeeding_Heart_Tavern_2011_-_Tavern_Bar.jpgDo you feel torn between respecting the historic setting of your restaurants and wanting to move with the times? How do you reconcile the traditional with the modern?

We are not the hottest, sexiest restaurant around, so we don’t try to be. You have to stick to what you do because that’s what people know you for. We do good, really well-sourced food with formal flourishes – like filleting the fish at the table and wheeling out the cheeseboard – in a relaxed environment. Fay Maschler once wrote about a favourite restaurant of hers, saying it was like a comfortable pair of slippers, and that’s how we like to see ourselves. Our regulars know what they are going to get at our restaurants. When the chairman of Prudential was interviewed at Bleeding Heart by the Financial Times in the 1990s, he said it was his favourite restaurant because if he was having a bad day, he could feel comfortable here.

Young people who eat out tend to look for fun, different experiences, and some of these new places really deliver – when Burger & Lobster opened in Mayfair, I knew I had to take my godson there because he loves burgers and his fiancé loves lobster. But people often have a default restaurant option – they will consider other, newer places, but usually end up at their default choice. Robert and I joke that we only lose regulars to the three Rs – retirement, relocation or redundancy.

What we do is keep refining our restaurants. Our dishes are still quite robust, but we now serve a lot more fish than we did five years ago. We started growing micro-herbs, tomatoes and courgettes on-site about two years ago, and when we opened the Bistro and the Tavern (pictured, right) we had a younger, more casual clientele in mind. If people only have an hour for lunch, they might go to the Tavern for a glass of wine and a lamb burger – it caters to people who are on more of a budget. The Bistro has a younger clientele than the restaurant, and we trust that as those people become 40-something and move into management, they will come to the restaurant to take clients out.

Did you ever feel tempted to move into the West End market?

Not really. In the late 1990s, when our restaurants were really bursting at the seams, property developers would tell us about great sites they’d found in Chelsea and the West End. We were never tempted because we know what the City business customer wants and needs, whereas we don’t know the West End customer as much. When we go to the West End we have fishcakes in Le Caprice, because we know we will be properly looked after.

You seem to be on duty at all times – how do you relax?

We bought a vineyard in New Zealand in 1993 [Trinity Hill, in Hawkes Bay] and we always spend the whole of February over there – it’s a wonderful time not to be in England! It’s a key time for the vineyard because it’s when we find out what the harvest is going to look like. After a month in New Zealand, though, we are ready to come back to London.

We really enjoy travelling, but it would be very unusual for us to visit a country that doesn’t produce wine. We went to Greece earlier this year and we made a point of stopping off in Santorini to taste some wines, one of which we now stock in the restaurant.

The_Don_Restaurant_2013_6.jpgWhat’s next for the two of you?

We are building a bar and bistro next door to The Don (pictured, left) for people in the City who haven’t got much time. It’s 4,000 sq ft in size, will seat 160, and is due to launch on 15 October – so things are very full on for us at the moment. The Don Bar & Bistro is going to be very vino-centric, with masses of really good wines by the glass dispensed from Enomatic machines. It will also have a glamorous cocktail bar – something we haven’t done before – made out of Portuguese cork, with banquettes made from old port vats. People can sit at the bar and have a snack or a coffee, or they can go to the bistro downstairs, which will serve larger dishes and will feature a tasting room and a big private dining room. ¬We thought long and hard before expanding, but we decided we would regret it if we didn’t take this opportunity.

We’re not planning to retire any time soon. About 10 years ago, a large brewery made us a ridiculously large offer for the restaurant group. We thought about selling it then, but we didn’t know what we’d do with ourselves! We like doing this; if we weren’t happy that’s when we’d retire.

This interview was published on 13 September 2013.

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