Open all hours

Thursday 21st March 1996 00:00

"Ask me and I might say yes..." beckons the message on the backs of waiting staff at a Chelsea café that has set out to redefine the idea of flexible shifts.

Open since November, the 66-seat Vingt-Quatre has never shut. As its name suggests, it serves meals around the clock, which means a working week of 168 hours and a logistical balancing act to schedule rosters.

With about 1,500 customers per week, business is booming. A second outlet is planned to open within a year, sited in London's most popular nocturnal habitat - Soho.

Enthusiasm crackles in the air at Vingt-Quatre, even at 10am on a Monday morning, as co-owner Joel Cadbury breezes in. He's dressed in whites, fresh from an early morning shift cutting vegetables at Aubergine restaurant around the corner.

He works at Aubergine for the experience, the love of food, the thrill of learning in a Michelin-starred kitchen and because he admires Gordon Ramsay. Cadbury praises Ramsay's style and the motivating atmosphere at his restaurant.

He says: "It's a real honour to be able to go there. And I learn through osmosis, by being around and seeing how things are done."

At just 24, Cadbury is clearly a fast learner. He and fellow young partners Ollie Vigors and Alex Langlands-Pearse use their company, Longshot Limited, as a vehicle for Vingt-Quatre and a pub and club next door to Aubergine.

With its unfussy but fun decor of stainless steel tables, coloured checked floor tiles and a bar counter made from reconstituted Fairy Liquid bottles, Vingt-Quatre is a concept that stems from frustration at living in a city where everything closes in the wee hours.

"London has a dearth of decent services that stay open around the clock. It's amazing when you look at other cities in Europe or the USA," explains Cadbury.

Pitching itself as a night-owl's venue, Vingt-Quatre comes into its own after dark. Although the liquor licence extends only until midnight, by then it has already served a normal evening's custom.

The following hours are when clubbers, night-shift workers and entertainment industry people jostle for space in what becomes a convivial, if sometimes raucous, setting. Chefs and other restaurant staff are an integral part of the custom. Ramsay is one of its most loyal visitors.

Word has clearly spread and Cadbury now employs a doorman to regulate the queues that form, especially on Thursday nights through to Sunday nights.

Looking with some glee at the balance sheet, he reckons average spend to be about £15-£20 during the evening period, falling to £8-£10 during the early hours with its absence of liquor sales.

The menu reflects this two-tier identity. Changing slightly each week according to what the computer says is selling or bombing, new items come and go, but a few old faithfuls remain.

The stress is always on simplicity. Between midday and midnight, a simple à la carte menu offers all starters (usually five) at £3.25, main courses (up to six) at £6.75 and a couple of dessert choices for £2.75.

Favourite main dishes include: deep-fried crab and salmon fish cakes; sirloin steak; and vegetarian stuffed tomato with pesto cream.

Complementing this is a breakfast and snack menu available 24 hours a day, with choices such as full English breakfast (by far the most popular), cereals, pasta, soup, salads, burgers and sandwiches.

With flavoured vodka shots, erotically-labelled cocktails and a good stock of uncontroversial wines, teas and coffees, the imagination that conceived Vingt-Quatre is much in evidence.

Vingt-Quatre, 325 Fulham Road, London, SW10. Tel: 0171-376 7224.

LAST month a wave of excitement hit the South-east's well-heeled commuter set. A restaurant, claiming to bring the "style of cuisine associated with the West End", opened in the residential area of Locksbottom, Kent. And with a "named" chef, to boot.

David Cavalier, who for the past eight years has worked in London at venues including his eponymous restaurant and the Michelin-starred L'Escargot in Soho's Greek Street, is an unlikely kitchen star to be found in a mock-Tudor property on the outskirts of Farnborough.

But once inside Chapter One, a 160-seat restaurant with a bar/brasserie and a 60-seat private function room, the refitted rooms explain his attraction.

After quitting L'Escargot last summer, a stint as a consultant chef led Cavalier to his new venture. He was asked to look at transforming the New Fantail restaurant in Locksbottom, for its owner, the Select Restaurant Group. Six months later, it became Chapter One, a concept which, if successful, could lead to more neighbourhood eating venues - Chapter Two, Three and so on.

An architect friend drew up the new look at Chapter One, but Cavalier was clear about his objectives. "I wanted clean and straight lines within a tight budget," he says. He closed the New Fantail for just three weeks, before opening under the Chapter One banner on 10 February. He does not own the restaurant, but is paid a consultancy fee and has struck a deal whereby he gets a percentage of the takings.

Cavalier lost two stone before the opening, but says the stress has been worthwhile. "I'm delighted with the restaurant's transformation - it's been packed every night," says Cavalier, who has appointed Neil Haydock, formerly sous chef of L'Escargot, as head chef. "I didn't anticipate doing 100 covers every night and 60-70 for lunch - I really underestimated this area."

Chapter One offers an à la carte menu; set-price lunch and dinner menus (£16 for three courses); a set-price Sunday lunch menu (£13.95 for three courses); and an all-day, à la carte brasserie menu. The main à la carte menu offers 12 starters (all £4.50), 14 main courses (all £12.50) and eight desserts (all £4) or British regional cheeses (£6.50).

Favourite starters on the à la carte menu have been fish dishes - risotto of cäpes, beignet (fritter) of oysters; tian of crab andalouse (which carries a £1.50 supplement); and nage of scallops, savoy cabbage, soy, ginger and lemon grass (£3.50 supplement).

Cavalier has noticed different trends in customers' eating habits. "We sell more fish during the week - a 50:50 meat/fish ratio on weekdays, while 80% of customers go for meat at the weekends."

Popular main courses from the à la carte menu, which changes every six weeks, include croustade of red mullet, black olives, basil and tomato; steamed sea bass, braised potatoes and aubergine tapenade; and fillet of pork, prosciutto, tomato, gruyäre and Madeira jus.

For dessert, maŒtre d' Patrick Billante (formerly of London restaurants Le Gavroche and Harvey's) will steer you towards prune and Armagnac soufflé or banana beignets.

With his brigade of 12, Cavalier hopes to fine-tune the operation by making the menus more "speed orientated". He explains: "Customers in this area want to eat more quickly than I'm used to. At L'Escargot we would do 120 covers between 6.30pm and 11.30pm. Here we will do 90-100 covers between 8pm and 9.30pm - so I will have to design the menus around that."

And while Cavalier is not concentrating on reworking his menus or thinking about other "Chapters" in his life, he will be turning his attention to Memo - a 160-seat restaurant, situated opposite the Houses of Parliament, which he plans to open in October. n

Chapter One, Locksbottom, Farnborough, Kent. Tel: 01689 858439.


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