Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jay Rayner

Russell Norman and his small plates changed British dining for ever

Russell Norman in a restaurant in 2021.
‘Russell Norman had the born restaurateur’s obsession with detail.’ Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

It is no accident that Russell Norman, who has died suddenly aged 57, made his late-1980s entrance into the restaurant world through the doors of the theatreland favourite Joe Allen; a place adored more for its scene than its ever-reliable American bistro food. Norman was on the run from a career as a drama teacher. He wanted to be at the heart of things and found a welcoming home in the carefully choreographed drama of a room frequented late at night by the biggest West End stars just off the stage.

After all, a great restaurant service has much in common with theatre: there’s back stage and front of house; there’s the set of the laid table and the performative nature of hospitality. Norman quickly recognised that he was temperamentally suited to it all. He had the born maître d’s ability to be interested in people. During the first lockdown I asked him what we had lost with the closure of the hospitality sector. It wasn’t about going somewhere to get fed, he said. It was about atmosphere. ‘The right restaurant atmosphere,” Norman said, “makes your heart beat a little faster. It makes you want to be in that room. It’s as important and significant a catalyst to appetite as any cocktail or bowl of olives. It’s restaurant foreplay.”

The lasciviousness was very much Russell Norman. By 2009, when he and his business partner Richard Beatty launched Polpo, the small-plates Italian that would make his name, Norman had served a serious apprenticeship choreographing restaurant foreplay. He had become operations director at the glitzy Caprice Holdings, the group that owned the Ivy, Scott’s, Sheekey’s and so much more. Those Caprice Holdings restaurant openings, where he cut his teeth, were all about exclusivity. They fed off a growing fascination with celebrity culture.

Polpo, which referenced the bacaro or cafes of his beloved Venice, was, however, all about democratising the restaurant experience. It wasn’t just in the price point, which was kind on the pocket. It was also in the very shape of the meal. Sharing plates were hardly new. Tapas had been around for a long time. But by pushing the idea with a different culinary repertoire – through plates of fritto misto, chicken liver crostini or pumpkin risotto, all designed for sharing – he made formality impossible. Yes, the closely packed tables meant he could pack more people in, and that kept prices down. But it also made for the babble and noise of a dining room that passersby instinctively wanted to be part of. He might have referenced the islands of Venice in creating Polpo but in truth it recalled another island, Manhattan. The first branch in London’s Soho felt like a funky Italian on New York’s Lower East Side.

Added to that, he had a sharp eye for an interior: the way he could turn a bare brick wall into a feature, or a ceiling into a talking point courtesy of beaten metal panels, or use low lighting to foster intimacy. The result was a restaurant group that grew quickly to multiple branches, and only floundered from 2016 onwards due to an ill-judged management restructuring. Nevertheless, the impact of Polpo has been felt in small-plate restaurants all over the country. Arguably without Polpo we wouldn’t have the Middle Eastern-inflected Maray in Liverpool or Erst in Manchester, Bubala in London, Sargasso in Margate and so many others. Norman was a tastemaker, a man who knew how to show people a good time, because he very much liked having one himself.

Most of all, he had an obsession with detail. His 31st and last restaurant opening in 2021 was Brutto in London’s Clerkenwell, his love letter to the trattoria of Florence. It was also the basis for his cookbook of the same name, published earlier this month. Norman desperately wanted to serve a lampredotto, or tripe roll, of the sort found in the Florentine central market, but he couldn’t get the right kind of bread, and put enormous effort into locating a bakery that could make it for him. He finally located one only a few months ago, and sent me excited messages about the fact. Some people wondered why he bothered. It was only a bread roll. But for Russell Norman, the best restaurant experiences were all about the details. And he cared about them, very much.

  • Jay Rayner is the Observer’s restaurant critic and a feature writer

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.