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They were unlikely winners of Raymond Blanc’s The Restaurant, but JJ Goodman and James Hopkins have proved the critics wrong with their string of feel-good cocktail bars – the newest of which will launch in Shoreditch later this year.
A muddy rugby pitch in Worcester seems an unlikely place for two of London’s hottest bar talents to meet, but that is where JJ Goodman and James Hopkins first traded blows – then beers – more than 10 years ago. Fast forward to 2013, and the duo now run a handful of bars, thanks in part to chef Raymond Blanc, and have a reputation for great cocktails at bargain-basement prices.
Goodman grew up in Worcester, and in 2002 Hopkins came over from his native Melbourne for a school rugby tour. The two became good friends, and when Hopkins returned 12 months later on his gap year, he ended up living across the street from Goodman in Worcester. He went home to Australia in 2006 to study, but returned to the UK and got a recruitment job in the City. Not long after, the two friends ended up sharing a house together in London.
Blanc’s involvement came after Goodman and Hopkins claimed an unlikely victory in the chef’s 2009 reality TV show, The Restaurant, in which he gave a leg-up to wannabe restaurateurs. Despite numerous kitchen disasters – Goodman’s soufflé in the final resembled a milkshake – and being dismissed as ‘blaggers and chancers’ by the judges, they won, and went on to open their second London Cocktail Club (LCC), in Fitzrovia.
Unbeknown to most viewers, Goodman and Hopkins had already set up their first LCC in Covent Garden a year earlier – they were ‘amazed’ that the name hadn’t already been snapped up – and although Blanc offered them the chance to open a restaurant with a small-plates theme (their victorious concept in The Restaurant), the duo opted instead to stick with a winning formula.
It seems a wise decision. The new site adopted a ‘gin palace’ theme and featured ‘gastro mixology’ cocktails, such as the squid-ink sour and the bacon & egg coupet, complete with bacon-rasher garnish. Goodman’s drinks wizardry and Hopkins’s financial savvy have seen the LCC expand further, with a third site in Shaftesbury Avenue opening 18 months ago, complete with a British navy rum theme. The original site has been renamed the Covent Garden Cocktail Club, to separate it from their ventures with Blanc.
The key difference between LCC and other high-end bars is the pricing (cocktails start at £7.50), and the unashamedly upbeat vibe. Goodman says: ‘The core element of LCC is that it’s somewhere to go and get wrecked, party, listen to AC/DC and drink a corpse reviver. There are places like Lab Bar, where you have to be into house music, or The Player, which is a bit loungey, but we are attracted to cheese!’ Hopkins defines LCC as the ‘sort of place that makes you feel young again, a place that plays stuff you’d listen to when you were 16 or 17’.
The other big difference between LCC and other, more ‘serious’ cocktail joints is the target market. Goodman says that 80 per cent of his cocktail lists are aimed at ‘Sally from accounts’ – people keen to let their hair down after a tough day in the office. ‘That was our core demographic right from the start,’ he says. ‘We could have gone down the drier, on-trend route, but we never have. We’ve stuck to our guns, and I think people respect us for that.
‘You know, we bartenders do make life difficult for ourselves. Your average punter does not want to drink neat Chartreuse over ice. And some places don’t like serving mojitos any more, but I think we make the best mojito in London. What’s the secret? Loads of lime, loads of mint, loads of rum!’
The next LCC is planned for Shoreditch, with space for 30 on the ground floor and 120 in the basement. The theme – ‘British kitchen’ – is intriguing, and there will also be a cocktail school element, where customers can learn about and mix their own drinks.
The duo hope it will be open by the end of the year, but there is also the possibility that they may open another before then, in a more central site – Soho is the preferred location. What’s more, they have just opened Keystones Cocktail Club in Worcester, together with ex-England rugby pro Luke Narraway (Blanc is not involved).
So, what’s the cocktail scene like in Worcester? ‘It’s cool,’ says Goodman. ‘The big chains still dominate, but you’ve got places like The Hand in Glove and The Marr’s Bar, which is one of the best live music venues I’ve ever been to.’ Keystones is an attempt, he adds, to ‘have some fun’ with a cocktail bar and ‘take away some of the pretentiousness’. With cocktails starting at £6.50, house punch for a fiver and two-for-one ‘mojito Mondays’, it’s a fair bet that punters will have some fun.
Back in the capital, where do they think the cocktail world is heading? Hopkins says: ‘The Prohibition-style bars were really big a couple of years ago, but I think we’re heading more towards entertainment. Guys like Callooh Callay do it really well, and there are more fun bars popping up.’
And the pair themselves? Hopkins admits it would be easy to ‘open as many bars as we can, then sell them to an investment firm’, but he adds they have no plans to do this. Why? ‘We created our brand, and we love it.’
‘It’s the fear that drives you,’ explains Goodman. ‘When you open anywhere, you’re immediately in debt. Then you break even, but you still live in fear that you could go into debt. But in our boardroom everyone’s happy.’ Keeping everyone happy – from Raymond Blanc and the accountants to, perhaps most importantly, the punters through the door – has been the secret to Goodman and Hopkins’ success.
What did you think of James when you first met him? ‘When you grow up in Worcester you don’t meet people who aren’t English. We had way too much in common. And James being Aussie did him proud with the birds.’
What’s his best trait? ‘He’s unbelievably loyal.’
What’s his worst habit? ‘His taste in women is awful! But he’s got a good one at the moment.’
What’s his favourite cocktail? ‘He’s a big gin fan, so a G&T, or a Tom Collins.’
Tell us a secret about him… ‘He gets a bit paranoid about losing his hair. It’s been going for years.’
What did you think of JJ when you first met him? ‘Such a lovely guy, inviting me to come for a drink. He’s just a good bloke.’
What’s his best trait? ‘His creativity and warmth. He brings a lot of positive energy to every project we do.’
What’s his worst habit? ‘He can be quite short. He needs things done yesterday!’
What’s his favourite cocktail? ‘A white lady (lemon juice, egg white, sugar, gin).’
Tell us a secret about him… ‘He’s addicted to eBay. It’s like Christmas in our house – half-a-dozen parcels turn up every week.’
This feature was published in the summer 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.