Empire State Of Mind: Meet Russell Norman, The Man Who Brought Venice To London Via Brooklyn

Nancy Alsop talks to Russell Norman, the man who brought Ventian cicchetti – laced with New York sensibilities – to London as he cuts the ribbon to Polpo’s latest outpost on Notting Hill Gate 


Russell Norman’s Golden Square office is somehow a fittingly modest affair. Swish address aside, it is populated by just eight people – which works out as precisely one for each of his restaurants. The man himself, meanwhile, rushes to bring drinks, remove coats and is strikingly attentive, his politeness of the warm, rather than brittle, variety. But then Russell Norman is a man whose success rests on both the eschewal of grandiosity and an unerring attention to detail. After all, Polpo – of which his new Notting Hill outpost constitutes the fourth restaurant to bear the name – and the other eateries in his stable (Polpetto, Spuntino, Ape and Bird and Mishkin’s) are trailblazers of the recession-guided zeitgeist for both stripped-back simplicity and outstanding service.


‘Getting a restaurant right is a science,’ agrees Norman. ‘The ergonomics are important. There’s a brilliant restaurant in Soho that I go to because the food is sensational, but it drives me crazy that the height of the stools and bar are so wrong that I feel like a child at them. These are things I will never ever get wrong.’


We’re here to talk about this latest in the Polpo stable; Norman’s eighth restaurant with his business partner Richard Beatty, has usurped the site where the unlovely All Bar One once stood, the former’s pervading beige now happily swapped for Polpo’s signature aged, rusted tin ceilings, exposed bricks (‘it has beautiful glazed brick walls with the sort of detailing you find on the Metropolitan Line’) and red banquettes – a supreme articulation of the successful antidote to fine dining. As ever, Norman – who is as hands-on as restaurateurs come, daily visiting his establishments – designs the interiors himself, obsessively seeking out one-off pieces that chime with his aesthetic (‘doing it myself was a money-saving exercise, but it seems to have worked’). How, I ask, will this Polpo differ from its existing relations?


‘It’s twice the size,’ he explains. ‘Plus we can use it as a bar. One of the problems with small restaurants in Westminster is that you take a site and you get A3 consent, which means you can only serve booze if you’re eating. It’s a pain. This place has an A4 licence, which means we can operate effectively like a pub.’


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