The gastropub kings with their sights set on the City

Timothy Barber
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IF you’re the sort of person who appreciates London’s classier pub offerings, the chances are you’ve been a customer of Tom and Ed Martin. The brothers, a pair of gangly good eggs who exude bonhomie and serious business ambition in equal measure, are the operators of an impressive number of the capital’s upper echelon public houses, including bankers’ favourite the Gun in Docklands, the White Swan in Holborn and the Cadogan Arms on the King’s Road.

They’re now breaking into the City with not one but two new openings a few minute’s stroll from each other.

The first, the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, is something of a departure for the Martin boys, in that it’s not a pub at all but a hotel restaurant and bar. It’s in the new Montcalm hotel in the former Whitbread brewery (adjoined to the Brewery conference centre occupying the rest of the building) on, you guessed it, Chiswell Street. A few weeks after opening, City locals have already adopted this elegant, upmarket dining room like an old favourite, lapping up reliably wonderful dishes like Dover sole and an unctuous snail and bacon pie.

True to type, in the winter Tom and Ed will be opening a pub in the former King’s Head just up the same road. It will feature an open kitchen, a trio of large rotisseries and some useful private dining rooms.

The Martin brothers would take no credit for starting the gastropub revolution – they opened their first venue, Clerkenwell’s the Well, in 2000, a good few years after the term had been coined around places like the Eagle in Farringdon and the Westbourne in Westbourne Grove. But in the past decade what was a ripple in the pub world has grown to a tidal wave, with the brothers and their company, ETM Group, riding on its crest. Has the gastropub idea reached saturation point though?

“Even Centre Parcs is marketing one of its restaurants as a gastropub,” says older brother Tom, 40, with a wry smile. “But I actually like the term, it states exactly what a place is and it’s a fact of life now. What we’ve ended up with is people being choosy about where they go, the same as with hotels and restaurants – places that provide good product and good service are the ones that do well.”

Childhood trips to Kent, when their parents would take the brothers to the local village pub at weekends, installed the siblings’ passion for a good English hostelry. “We grew up loving that atmosphere of the great local pub, and there’s really nothing better in the world,” says Tom.

He was working as a solicitor when the aforementioned Westbourne, which he lived above, inspired him to go into business himself. The Well, on St John’s Road, was an instant hit, and when Tom’s original partner left the business after a year, Ed, then fresh from a finance degree at university, bought him out. Splitting various responsibilities between them – Ed oversees beverages and accounts, Tom does food and marketing – they’ve grown ETM to a stable of eight venues, of which the coming City pub (unnamed as yet) will be the ninth.

While the pub industry nationally is in crisis, Ed points out that in London it’s a different story. The hardest thing now is finding venues, such is the competition between the various independent operators and the breweries for spaces to convert. Next year sees them open a cocktail bar and restaurant in a new Canary Wharf tower block: “We’re having to change our business model to the sorts of sites we can find,” says Ed.

Nor has it escaped their attention that one of their main competitors, Geronimo Inns, was last year sold to Young’s for £60m. Do they fancy following suit?

“Absolutely not,” says Tom. “The fact that we privately own this business is the best thing, we don’t have to deal with private equity or any investors. We just want to keep growing.”