CITY boys and girls can be a hard bunch to please, but Neleen Strauss seems to have found the formula that keeps them coming back to High Timber, the restaurant she co-owns that is located on the north bank of the River Thames.
High Timber has arguably one of the best views in the City: it overlooks Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern. It also has a South African feel – Strauss’s birth place until she moved to the UK in 2001 – with bright Paul du Toit paintings on the walls, a slate floor, thick wooden tables and a relaxed atmosphere: “The restaurant is less fussy than fine dining,” says Strauss, who became a British citizen three years ago.
High Timber was Strauss’ second foray into the restaurant business. Her first was as co-partner of Vivat Bacchus, which opened in 2003. After five years she sold her shares in the business and set up High Timber.
“Back in 2003 you could set up a business in the City for £500,000. You can’t do that now, High Timber cost the best part of £2m,” Strauss says as she shows me the wine cellar, which has a delicious earthy smell and contains over 20,000 dusty bottles of wine lying on their bellies on wooden racks. Strauss set up High Timber with Jordan Wines, a vineyard based in the Stellenbosch. It’s been hard work to get High Timber started, it often includes 15 hour days, five days a week.
Although she had planned High Timber for two years, Strauss didn’t open the restaurant until April 2009, right in the middle of the credit crunch. “We have a saying in South Africa: “adapt or die”. If you can survive a recession then you can survive anything.”
Serving reams of bankers, lawyers and analysts each day must give Strauss a sense of how things are going in the City: “I like to call it my own champagne index. There was certainly less champers being drunk when we first opened the restaurant, but now more people are indulging, which shows something is going right, and is good for us.”
High Timber is already starting to pay off: “I budgeted for it to break even in the first year, but it actually turned a tiny profit, and we think we will be in profit this year as May was our best month ever.”
She says she isn’t intimidated by being a restaurateur in what is a male-dominated world: “I went to a very good girls school that taught me I could do anything I want, and on top of that my mother had a successful home crafts business, so I had some strong female role models.”
After conquering London, what she calls “the world’s city”, Strauss isn’t going to stop there; she wants to take her brand of low-fuss, high quality dining to the New World and has plans to open a branch of High Timber in New York.
CV | NELEEN STRAUSS
Family: Single, no children
Lives: The City
Drives: “I take cabs or walk.”
Reading: “I am always reading even though I work long hours. Right now I am reading Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.”
Strauss went into the restaurant business after studying acting at the University of the Free State. “I went straight into waitressing after college because I realised it paid more than acting,” says Strauss.