“Who would have thought, 20 years ago, that Liverpool would be a tourist destination?” says Paddy Smith, co-founder of Red & Blue Restaurants, which operates three venues in the city.
“In some ways, Liverpool’s curse, the dereliction and harsh times it went through in the ’80s, has been a blessing because of the space left empty. “Which other city could build a huge convention centre [Exhibition Centre Liverpool] or the five-star Titanic Hotel, slap bang in its centre? We’ve benefited from that availability of space. We’ve winkled out good sites. But it’s getting harder.”
Former group chef at Ego restaurants, Smith opened Salt House Tapas in 2010. Located opposite John Lewis on the edge of the Liverpool ONE shopping development, but in a privately owned building, it was one of the first of a new wave of quality, casual restaurants such as HOST, Bakchich and Free State Kitchen, which have helped define modern Liverpool.
The restaurant will turn over £1.8m this year and is growing at 5% to 10% annually. The menu follows a tried and tested formula – split into meat, fish and vegetarian tapas – with a range of charcuterie and breads, but Salt House’s approach isn’t entirely predictable. Tables are reserved in the traditional manner, except for table 14, where solo diners can choose to
In the meantime, Red & Blue has also opened Hanover Street Social and Salt House Bacaro and is negotiating on a fourth Liverpool site. For Smith, the logic of such clustering in one city is manifest: “I can walk from Hanover Street to Salt House in 10 seconds. Logistically, it works fantastically – every day we’re in the restaurants working on food, drink, service, ambience –and it keeps central costs low. There are no real car costs. We don’t need an area manager or group chef.”
Smith doesn’t claim to be a pioneer. Tapas is tried and tested and he readily acknowledges that Polpo in Soho was a key inspiration for the small-plate dining at Bacaro, even if the site itself – fresh, cosmopolitan, urban – is a distinctive Red & Blue creation. However, he doesn’t necessarily think Liverpool is simply aping London trends. He points to Camp
& Furnace, an edgy restaurant/arts warehouse space: “Where did that come from? There are good, original ideas coming through.”
Financially, at least, London and Liverpool are still very different. Average spends are lower across the north: “The difference is narrower at night. But at lunch, you’re fighting for your corner. I can’t remember the last time we ate somewhere in London that had a lunch menu on for £10.95.”