Robin Gill: ‘I never planned to open multiple restaurants.’

Robin Gill opens up on his evolution from chef to restaurateur, and the joy of opening a restaurant in his home neighbourhood

Updated on • Written By Pete Dreyer

Map view
Close map
Robin Gill: ‘I never planned to open multiple restaurants.’

Nothing compares to the thrill of exiting Brixton station. As you climb the stairs, the roar of the outside world gets louder, like floating up from the bottom of a swimming pool. Peak your head over the steps and you see scarlet buses careering past and crowds smashing together like white water rapids.

We duck and dive our way towards Brixton Market, avoiding cyclists and trolley-wielding grandmas. Eventually we find our way to Bottle & Rye where Robin Gill is perched at the counter with a laptop, blissfully unaware of the chaos outside. Brixton’s intense sensory overload feels alien to us but to Robin, it’s just another day at home. ‘I love the hustle and bustle and the eclectic mix you get here,’ he says. ‘There’s a concern as to whether the soul of Brixton gets lost if lots of new people move into the area. I don’t think that’s the case - it still feels like Brixton.’


Sitting at one end of Market Row, Bottle & Rye isn’t shying away from Brixton’s buzz. In fact, Gill is keen for it to be a very central part of the fabric. The all day bistro is a blend of Gill’s love of Brixton and his admiration for Parisian food culture - specifically the French capital’s flexible bistros that always seem to fit the time of day. ‘Those little neighbourhood bistros are busy all the time,’ he says. ‘There’s croissants and coffee in the morning, then in the afternoon there are business lunches, people catching up with friends and plats du jour - simple, accessible stuff, with loads of great produce. It’s slightly quieter in the afternoon but everyone is in for aperitifs, then the lights are down low and the music goes up in the evening! People are basically living in these places - they’re the heart and soul of the city.’

Lucky Brixton residents can expect much the same experience at Bottle & Rye. Good baking is a feature of Gill’s restaurants and you’ll find great laminated pastries knocking about in the morning, before the space transitions to produce-led small plates, sandwiches and great wines. ‘I’m obsessed with the transition during the day - that’s why we have the big disco ball up there,’ says Gill, gesturing to the ceiling. ‘About 9pm we’ll stick on some LCD Soundsystem and the party will kick off.’

It was only a decade ago that Gill opened his first restaurant - The Dairy in Clapham, which sadly closed in 2020. His restaurants have been such a part of London’s restaurant zeitgeist that it feels as though he has been on the scene for much longer. Gill was part of a new wave of chefs in the 2010s that had a huge impact on dining in London, leading us towards an accessible, New Nordic style of cooking that made the most of British ingredients. Before sustainability became a trend, Gill was keeping bees on the roof of The Dairy and fermenting his own bread miso. The Dairy may be closed, but its spirit is alive and well in the walls of his second generation restaurants like Bottle & Rye, Bermondsey Larder and Maria G’s.

Restaurants are big business and the desire to grow and make money can often leave them feeling overly planned and transactional. By contrast, Gill’s restaurant empire has grown organically - a convenient meshing of site opportunities and his desire to nurture talent. ‘I never planned to open multiple restaurants,’ he says. ‘As a chef you’re just consumed with getting a restaurant open and making it great.’ Gill learned the hard way at The Dairy that there weren’t enough hours in the day to do everything himself - he wanted to be in the kitchen, but instead he was arguing with builders and designing the restaurant. That, he says, ended up being the best thing that could have happened, as it forced him to abandon his ego and collaborate with his team. ‘The result was better than anything I would have done myself,’ he says. ‘I realised that there’s a skill to stepping back and bringing people together to create something.’

‘…there’s a skill to stepping back and bringing people together to create something.’

Gill has a proven track record when it comes to talent - ex The Dairy chefs pop up at quality restaurants all over the place, whether it’s Dean Parker at Celentano’s in Glasgow, Richard Falke at the excellent Fork in Lewes, or Zebra Riding Club chef Amber Francis, making her Great British Menu debut this year. Eventually, though, if you nurture chefs you need somewhere for them to go. ‘That’s what happened with The Manor (Gill’s second restaurant),’ he explains. ‘We’d done really well at The Dairy, and The Manor was a chance for Dean to have his own restaurant with us.’ Instead of leaving to pursue his career, Parker stayed with the group for years, helping to open successful restaurants like Sorella and Darby’s.

Look at Gill’s restaurant portfolio today and they all have unique identities - Bottle & Rye is a compact, buzzy bistro, Maria G’s is a little more sleek and sultry, decked out in deep emerald and low-contrast marble, and Darby’s pays homage to Gill’s late father, blending Irish-American food with live jazz. There’s a thread that runs through all of them however - one that was woven tightly into the fabric of The Dairy too. ‘We’re obsessed with craft,’ Robin says. ‘We’re obsessed with bread, charcuterie, and great produce, but we don’t want restaurants to be carbon copies of each other, because I guess I’d get bored otherwise. I want to try different things.’

'You need lots of good people around you - they’re the heart and soul of the business.’

There’s no replacement for experience in this game, and Gill’s restaurants now have a blueprint that works, both in terms of food and staff. Still, when it comes to the restaurant game there are no guarantees - sometimes things just don’t work out, and Gill has been on the sharp end of that too. ‘I look at somewhere like Paradise Garage (Gill’s Bethnal Green restaurant, which closed in 2017) and honestly, I still think we killed it,' he shrugs. 'It was perfect - we had an amazing team and it was in a good area. It did an amazing 24 months and then it just started to dip. I still don’t know why really, I go back there sometimes and look around the area and wonder if it was just not the right time. Restaurants are fickle, but it’s good to try and not accept defeat.

‘If you don’t have the right people, though, you’re screwed,' he adds. 'Everything’s about people. I’m only one person. You need lots of good people around you - they’re the heart and soul of the business.’

Who or what have been your biggest influences?

Raymond Blanc, for sure. Nuno Mendes, I think he’s an amazing guy, super creative - I’ve got to know him in the industry, he actually inspired Bloodshot Supper Club. We were chatting about late night dining in London and it started from that. I love that he’s super creative and trying different things, and he’s an incredible cook.

If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?

If you’re going to cook, start with places that you really love going to. Pick five places and spend a week staging at them - you need a week to really know what the atmosphere is like, because you can never understand it in just a day. Take your time and make sure it’s right for you, don’t just take the first job that comes at you.

Favourite cooking gadget?

Having a really decent temperature probe is great, such a useful thing to have with you.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

Spaghetti Bolognese, my mum taught me to make that.

What is your favourite thing to cook at home?

I love cooking whole fish, or scallops.

Do you have a guilty food pleasure?

I love a Meatliqour! The monkey fingers in Meatliquor, and the filthy fries with blue cheese and chilli. With an ice cold beer.

Where is your favourite foodie destination?

San Sebastien. And Paris. Oh and Sydney. Lisbon is up there as well.

If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?

I think I’d have been involved in music in some way, I love music and my Dad was a musician as well. I maybe would have been in events, I love creating events where there’s a mix of music and things going on. I would have combined food and music somehow.

Favourite restaurants in the UK?

I love a decent pub, I went to The Fordwich Arms a couple of times, that’s one of my favourites. I went down to see Mitch Tonks at The Seahorse, that’s so good, really nice. Bibendum is another outstanding meal I had in London. Oh, I love going to Smoking Goat and Kiln, obviously those are great. Sabor, another one of my favourites. Quality Chop.

What was the last great meal you had?

I went to a place called Jondal, it’s right on the coast in Ibiza - open fire cooking, right on the beach, amazing setting. It’s quite fun with loads of music, that was really fun.

If you love a transitional restaurant where the food and the drink go hand in hand, perhaps check out our list of London's best wine bars, categorised by area!

Join SquareMeal Rewards

Collect points, worth at least £1, every time you book online and dine at a participating restaurant.

Start Collecting Points

Already a member? Sign in