P.F. Chang's is iconic. The Chinese bistro chain has 204 locations in the US and 56 in international markets including Mexico, the UAE and South America.
But ask the average Londoner and they will never have heard of it.
That is something which co-founder Philip Chiang hopes to change with the opening of its first ever European location in Covent Garden. He wants word of mouth to drive awareness of P.F. Chang’s in the UK.
“It’s all about great food. It’s something people return to, talk about, and take pictures of. That’s the bottom line: good food.”
Over a selection of small plates inside the new restaurant on Great Newport Street, we discuss why, after more than two decades, P.F. Chang’s is finally coming to Europe, and why it’s starting in London.
“We’ve been wanting to come here for a while, but for various reasons we haven’t yet,” he says. Finding the right location was one issue, because the team all agreed that the restaurant needed to be at the heart of the city.
“The tourism here, the locals, the population density, you don’t get too many cities like that.”
So confident are Chiang and his team of the new restaurant’s success that they are planning a big push in London over the next three years, targeting another four sites by the end of 2018, and a portfolio of 10 by 2020.
To achieve the goal, they have created an entirely new concept. Most P.F. Chang’s locations in the US are large, out-of-town eateries, whereas everything about the London branch is smaller. It even has a new name: P.F. Chang’s Asian Table.
The space, a former 1960s jazz club, seats 138 people. Signature P.F. Chang dishes like Mongolian beef are served as small plates designed for sharing.
I am treated to the orange peel lamb chops, sushi, Singapore street noodles and a plate of cooked aubergine which was added to suit the higher number of vegetarians in the market.
Everything is delicately dressed, a conscious decision Chiang made knowing that some people associate Chinese food with too much sauce and oil.
The smaller portions mean you leave satisfied rather than overly stuffed.
“We’re known as P.F. Chang’s around the world but we knew we had to bring a different offering because the London market is very sophisticated,” explains Chiang's colleague Genaro Perez Diaz, who heads up global brand development. “It’s the new culinary capital of the world.”
The London restaurant also has the first ever P.F. Chang’s breakfast and brunch menu, a direct response to what similar places in the area offer their foodie clientele.
In fact, P.F. Chang’s Asian Table has all the bells and whistles of a hip London dining spot.
Downstairs an on-site bakery whips up desserts, while the bar is run by Fluid Movement, the London-based company behind the Worship Street Whistling Shop.
But these are the kinds of features becoming standard for West End dining as consumers look for an experience as well as a meal. Even the nearby Pizza Hut has its own cocktail bar.
“People are more knowledgeable now,” says Chiang, who has worked in restaurants all his life and seen our food habits change dramatically. “You can see people are hungry for new experiences.”
Now is then the ideal time to launch this new concept, and the company is eyeing locations in the rest of Europe too.
When selecting London as the launchpad, Chiang says Brexit never came into the equation. “I don’t know if it will affect us that much.”
With increased tourism spending in London, the weaker pound may even help the restaurant to take off as it targets London’s millions of visitors. Meanwhile, most of the ingredients are sourced locally from just outside of London, keeping import costs down.
By now, P.F. Chang’s expansion process is a well-oiled machine.
But there is always an element of risk, Chiang explains.
“It is a trial and error. Hopefully people will give us a shot, try the new breakfast and brunch menu, and it will suit their taste. We have to take a few liberties.”