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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
David Ellis

Russell Norman forever changed what it means to dine out in London

It is difficult to overstate what Russell Norman, the restaurateur who on Thursday died aged 57, did for London dining — and in turn, for dining across Britain. The list isn’t endless, but it is long enough. 

There are the headline acts — he introduced Britain to the idea that sharing plates might mean more than tapas; he revitalised the Negroni; he rid us, for a while, of reservations — but it was the subtler things, too. Those filament bulbs everywhere? Very Russell Norman. Wine in tumblers? So Russell — and all the better if they came out of the Duralex factory. He championed lampshades, hated any light brighter than a candle, and made bare brick walls a feature. He worked in flickering oranges and yellows, in twilight.

For his latest opening, the smash hit of Brutto, he spent hours and hours searching for suppliers, scouring markets and auction sites. He had completed eBay. Norman was a restaurateur interested in restaurants as a whole — the food mattered, yes, but he used a meal as an excuse for theatre, and dressed his sets extremely well. It helped he had excellent taste. Of his hobbies, he once told the Standard: “I like nothing more than trawling the internet for the perfect vinegary green copper lantern to go outside a place, or finding the right frosted glass.” You believed him.

Brutto (Paul Winch-Furness)

Norman’s fame came, mostly, from the success of Polpo, the Venetian-inspired restaurant which he opened alongside Richard Beatty in 2009. Polpo proved such an overwhelming success that it pushed everywhere else in London to up its game, helping turn the city into one of the world’s greatest for food. 

This was not his introduction to hospitality: having escaped a life as a council arts administrator — it all seemed too middling, too dreary — he worked as a bartender, as a drama teacher, and became the maître d' at Joe Allen, when it was still the “canteen” of the West End stars (he would later return, in 2021, to design its new bar menu). The idea of a life acting must have appealed; it helped he had leading man looks. He was quickly popular, did well managing Zuma — despite, as he put it, “burning myself out there” — and in 2006, Mark Hix recommended him for a serious gig with Caprice Holdings, where for a time he was operations director. 

But Norman was also a little restless, and liked to move. His was a life of his own design, with as much attention paid to this as everything else, and there was a sense he was looking always to tweak, to edit, to perfect. Asked about his background, and he called himself the black sheep of his family and gave the impression he might very well be allergic to Hounslow, where he had schooled. Even before restaurants, he was preparing for them. “I would travel to Italy and I would keep notebooks and take photographs and have a bag full of trinkets, menus, ephemera, stuff that I’d collected,” he told the Standard in 2021. “I didn’t really know why I was collecting all this, but it was only much later when things started to crystalise that I went ‘oh, ok! That’s what I was doing.’ I was… forming the character.” 

(Natasha Pszenicki)

It was this that helped when Polpo opened; it was this that drew people in. And it drew them often; Polpo positioned dining out as something to be done often, any day of the week. The group's success was also its downfall: a rapid expansion — something Norman would later say he was never especially for, and certainly regretted — caused an implosion, and the brand, which at one point counted 17 branches, now sits at two. Venture capitalists were behind the growth. “In 2016, 2017, 2018, it started to feel very corporate. It started to feel very commercial and I started to feel less comfortable with that, because I’ve always felt more at home in restaurants that are periodical, esoteric, family-run,” he said. “Eccentric places that are full of charm, rather than places that are dreamt up on a boardroom table or a spreadsheet."

Nevertheless, during the years of Polpo’s reign, it made Norman a hospitality star. In 2012, he published Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts), and by 2014, he was hosting a BBC Two series, The Restaurant Man. He was also a regular face in magazines, often writing the copy himself. He was bright, articulate. 

Norman’s newest restaurant, Brutto, became London’s first post-Covid hit, earning a rave review from the Standard’s Jimi Famurewa. Its appeal remains obvious: it serves £5 Negronis, plates simple but decent Italian dishes, including the kitsch pasta all vodka, and the tables creak under enormous steaks. It has red-and-white check tablecloths, Chianti in woven flasks. It is Norman's love letter to Florence, where he spent many hours doing research, including a trip on which he persuaded Jeremy King to take off his tie. Norman called Brutto “a chance to reset the record” and it was; it was a reminder of his utter love of restaurants, hospitality, of giving people a good time. The past was the past. Earlier this month, he published the Brutto cookbook, full of recipes to linger over on long Sunday afternoons.

Norman himself was a good time, and a popular face at parties across town. He was generous with his time and, just as he’d done at Joe Allen, could work a room, stopping in with everyone. He had an innate ability to chat on most things, or steer the conversation into something that would become a whirlwind of a story. 

Norman cut a glamorous figure, and had perfected himself in the same way he did his restaurants; he cultivated an artful sense of Bohemian dishevelment. It was all just so. In a photoshoot with the Standard, he was briefly mortified at the cropping of the camera. “But my shoes! These trainers!”

They had been lost. But the memory is illuminative; Norman was always dreaming the complete picture. He will be sorely missed, even if a bit of him lingers in dining rooms up and down the country. Some stumble into brilliance; Russell did it by design.

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