He transformed London's cocktail bars in the 1990s, bringing in experts Dick Bradsell and Dale DeGroff and a new commitment to training to help revamp a moribund scene. Jonathan Downey has since opened bars across the world in the same vein, but a year ago he turned to wine, attempting to give it the same kind of life at the East Room in Shoreditch. And, he tells James Aufenast, he's not finished there
Hi Jonathan - how's business?
Well, it has slowed a bit since Lehmann collapsed in September. We've closed Sosho next door on Mondays and Tuesdays - things have affected us more there because it's close to the City.
So are you losing members?
No - in fact we've got 3,200 at the East Room and at Milk and Honey, and we're about to have a spring clean to get rid of some of them.
They've been misbehaving, have they?
No, not really. It's more that they don't have a sense of what a club is. There are certain things that you have to do if you want to be a member here, like give your name and address or sign up for direct debit so we don't have to chase you for your card details every year.
They're the same kind of people that blog, and send long e-mails telling us: "If you don't do such and such, we're going to refer it to the appropriate authorities." Who the fuck are the appropriate authorities?
For me the whole idea of starting a members' club was so I wouldn't have to deal with dickheads. We don't take e-mail bookings because they're fraught with problems. But these people will send an e-mail an hour before they come in on a Friday night and expect a table. They'll just stand there, demanding to be seated. Someone has to say to them: "What are you talking about? We've been fully booked for three weeks."
There are lots of clubs that won't take a stand against this sort of thing - one in particular in the West End. I'm bored of it here, and in the nice position now where I can say "go away".
So you're not short of members?
We closed the membership list after seven months - and that was without much publicity either - just a press release. The reviews we did get for East Room were all about how you have to go through a secret door and up a secret staircase to get to us. Well, no - you just go through the main entrance and up some stairs, and that's all there is to it.
No one wrote about the wine, even though the main aim of this place was to reinvent the tired English wine bar, which, for the past 20 years, has been anathema to me of what going for a drink has been about. I've always hated the city wine bar, where you have grey-haired, 50- or 60-something men with dandruff.
That's the cliché, but is it really true?
Well, when I came down to London as a trainee solicitor for the first time in 1990 I joined an international law firm, one of the top five in the world, with a partner in the corporate department.
One day, early on, he said: "Right, we're going out for a drink." I thought we were going to go somewhere amazing, like a private club with a spectacular roof terrace. And he took us to a fucking Davy's wine bar in Liverpool Street, down in this cellar, with red wine that tasted disgusting. And I thought: "This is London, then, is it?"
The situation has changed since, though?
Well, I'm not so sure. You can get a nice glass of wine in All Bar One and there's a bit more thought in some pubs nowadays, but...
There's Vinoteca, though, and Green and Blue
Yes, but only here and there. There's a massive demand for good wine bars - it's a case of "build it and they will come". To be honest, in the past five years there's been nothing new on the London bar scene.
When I opened Trailer Happiness in 2003, it was a genuinely new concept - bringing tiki drinks into a London basement bar vibe. But what has happened since then? The creativity and innovation has stopped, which is not the case in either Melbourne or New York.
You're obviously biased about Trailer Happiness - what about Green and Red in Shoreditch?
That's just a Tequila bar.
But people used to think London was too gimmicky, and that once it had a settled bar and restaurant scene, that would be a good thing.
Yes, you need a bit of that, but you also surely have to have a place to get a steak that isn't Gaucho Grill. Where can you get great sushi that isn't Itsu? Why can't you get good sushi in a nice café-bar environment? Where can you get good pizza that isn't Pizza Express?
So why have people stopped doing things?
Too many of them are on the same theme, which is gastro-British: pies, bangers and mash, lamb shank. It's because the spaces they take over and renovate are pubs. "Let's do British ale and some nice white wine from England" is the thought process.
But this is a good shift, surely? We've left fusion behind and we're staying true to our cultural roots.
That's true, but what London is really good at is taking trends from all over the world and putting its own twist on it. In the late 1990s Match, Alphabet, Home, Momo and the Met Bar all opened within about six months, taking from New York at the time.
London bars were the best in the world - and that lasted for a decade. But it's just not the case any more. At least East Room is a totally new concept, but it hasn't been acknowledged as such.
So what's so different?
When you go into most bars and restaurants there's all that writing under each wine, plus a lot of sommelier shit. "I can embarrass you by my knowledge and your lack of knowledge" is the underlying message. So we've done away with all that. We have all our wines from the New World, listed in a grid, where we just give the price, the country and the grape.
Is it a kind of two fingers to the French, then?
Not really. I've drunk loads of good Bordeaux in my time. When I was a lawyer, because I used to earn huge amounts of money and was tied to my desk, I didn't have time to spend it on anything else. Wines like 1982 Cheval Blanc are sublime they can't be beaten.
So it's a PR exercise?
No, it's not that either. This is more about not being another wine list that says: "Syrah - fruity and blackcurranty", or "light and well-balanced", or "forward and fruity". Forward? It's a fucking wine. This personification thing drives me mad.
If anything, the list is ignoring Italy, because I don't particularly like wines from there. You can drink wines from all over the country and they're pretty much the same. It's like Spain - most reds taste in and around the Rioja spectrum, and the whites don't have much scope.
That's fairly sweeping. Have you had any complaints?
We had one e-mail early on from someone saying that they hated our "wine thing". We write down the brand name for Champagne, because that's what people buy on there, and I can understand if people have a preference for Cloudy Bay or some of the New Zealand Pinot Noirs now, like Felton Road.
But most people buy wine by the price and the grape. If you're spending £18 on a bottle of Chardonnay, do you really care who the producer is? You don't sit down in a restaurant and start asking about where they got the potatoes that made the chips you trust the chef or the owner to provide you with good chips. And that's the same here.
People know a bit about wine, and so they pretend to know a lot more, especially boys in front of girls. We cut through all that crap. "A bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc at £30? That'll do me. Right, let's get talking."
That's true; looking at lists can take forever.
They're an obstruction. And I have to say Matt Skinner, our wine director, completely understands where we're coming from. He appreciates it's not about him and whether it will look good when it's reviewed by another wine list writer.
Sometimes we'll taste a wine and think, "What the fuck have we got this on for?" And someone will say: "Well, it's a small, biodynamic, one-off collective, blah, blah."
I'll say: "I don't care. The wine tastes shit, it's expensive, and no one will like it."
"But it looks good to have it on the list."
"So what? We're not having it."
I came in here the other night and had a shocking bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, so I texted Matt straight away.
So do you plan to do another one of these?
I'd love to open an East Room in Manchester. That city really excites me at the moment. It has the richest football club in the world - Manchester City - and the best football club in the world - Manchester United - and yet players from Brazil would rather go to Madrid or London because there's nowhere in the city to attract them. I'm going to make it my personal mission to bring in players to Manchester with some great new bars.
People always crash and burn in Manchester, though.
Oliver Peyton, for example, with Mash and Air.
He's not from Manchester. He did it in the wrong part of town, with the wrong concept, ahead of its time. This place would work perfectly, maybe with a few beers and some posh fish and chips.
But is it true that you've rowed back from launching in Australia?
We've done Match in Melbourne, but I've found it harder to get finance in Australia in the past six months. I budgeted on getting about half-a-million asset finance on Match Bar & Grill, but didn't get any of it. So I put in half-a-million more cash than I thought I would: something that would have got me one or two more sites.
We had a great site for a hotel, and were so close on that but couldn't quite do the deal. It wasn't in the best part of town on a strip of, well, strip bars, but I quite liked that. However, the landlord got too greedy.
So do you have any more new concepts?
Yes, there are a few bubbling around - not that I'm going to tell you about them! I've got a couple of austerity projects I want to run with, as a response to what's going on in the world, and I'm dying to get on with them. They won't cost me a lot of money, and have great roll-out potential. They'll be dead simple to do, so watch out.
THREE EAST ROOM PICKS
2007 Grosset, Polish Hill Riesling
You can't sell Riesling, but you should be able to shift this one - certainly if people actually try it. Germany has faltered with this grape, but the mineral, citrus, delicate notes of Jeffrey Grosset's version comes from what is regarded as Australia's - and probably the New World's - number-one region for Riesling.
2005 Amayna Pinot Noir
One of the first sommeliers to sing the praises of this wine was Gordon Ramsay's former head of wine, Ronan Sayburn. Its rich, textured, silky palate plus structured finish single it out as more Burgundy than New World Pinot, which are so often flabby and lacking firmness. Leyda is a region to look out for, offering cool-climate wines quite unlike Chile's nearby Central Valley.
2008 Saam Mountain Sauvignon Blanc, Paarl
Many venues are reporting that this grape is outselling all others, and this version from South Africa will add to your custom, with lean, clean flavours making it a Pinot Grigio with knobs on. South Africa has long been hailed as a major player in the dry white wine arena, and this example, suited to by-the-glass and the early part of the list, really delivers.
45-47 Clerkenwell Road, London EC1M 5RS
020 7250 4002
37-38 Margaret Street, London W1G 0JF
020 7499 3443
Match Bar & Grill
249 Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne 3000, Australia
00 61 3 9654 6522
Calle Garijo 5, Puerto de Ibiza, Ibiza 07800
00 34 971 931 150
2 Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4LU
020 7920 0701
8 Broadwick Street Soho W1F 8HN
020 7292 9945
Milk & Honey, Soho
61 Poland Street, London, W1F 7NU
07000 655 469
Milk & Honey, New York
134 Eldridge Street, New York, USA
00 1 212 625 3897
74 Promenade des Sonnailles 74400 Chamonix Mont Blanc, France
00 33 4 50 90 96 56
2a Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4LU
The New East One Company
2a Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4LU
020 7374 9570