During its short life, Public, Guy Pelly’s London nightspot, met with both triumph and disaster. Soon after it opened in December 2010 it had garnered a reputation as a firm favourite of his pals, Princes William and Harry. And, as one might have expected, it wasn’t long before the youthful, moneyed denizens of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and beyond were flocking to join the fun. According to Pelly’s co-founder Howard Spooner, at one point the club was having to turn away 1,000 people in a single night.
However, the venue’s location – just off the suede loafer expressway that is the Kings Road – also turned out to be its undoing. Complaints from local residents persuaded the council to truncate Public’s license from 2:30am to 12:30am – a move that Pelly said made the venture “untenable”. It was shut down in May this year.
Undeterred, Pelly, 30, is doing his best to put Public’s untimely demise behind him with a new project. The entrance to Tonteria, his new Mexican-themed tequila basement bar on Sloane Square, is a low-key affair. Below, though, things are a little different; hand-painted tiles, yellow-pink plastered walls and, above your head, a suspended model railway that delivers shots of tequila to the booths and tables that encircle the bar – and what will later become a small but heaving dancefloor.
Pelly is clearly proud of the miniature engineering marvel but, when he gives me the grand tour, admits that there have been teething problems. After a particularly generous patron spent £3,000 ordering 600 shots for fellow revellers, there were delays to the service. “There was tequila all over the tracks,” says Pelly, in mock exasperation. I suppose it makes a change from leaves on the line.
So, have Wills and Harry been in to check it out? “No, no, not yet. Not that I’ve seen,” he says with a good-natured chuckle that suggests he wouldn’t be so crude as to boast about it if they had.
Pelly says he wants Tonteria to be different from Public. The location, “touch wood”, should mean that there are no problems with licensing or angry neighbours and there is already a slightly older, more cosmopolitan crowd (think Euro-sloanes). That’s down to the connections of his 28-year-old co-founder Marc Burton, who is half French.
Unlike Pelly’s previous establishments, Tonteria has a food menu. He toyed with the idea of bringing a big-name chef on board but decided, in the end, to partner with neighbouring restaurant Côte. They supply Mexican-style tapas and sensibly-priced sharing dishes such as crispy squid rings with hot tomatillo salsa (£8.50), roasted pepper and black bean quesadillas (£6), tuna ceviche (£11) and mini burritos (£7). It’s unremarkable fare, but convenient and fits well with Tonteria’s chief concern, tequila. The club stocks 62 different types of the stuff, including one, Reserva del Alma, which is priced at £5,000 for the bottle.
Extending a hereditary line that started with the Mahiki Treasure Chest and continued with Public’s Warhead, Tonteria offers its customers the opportunity to imbue their alcohol intake with a little theatre. There are a number of cocktails that are intended for sharing, most notably the vast Mayan Pyramid (£130), which is shaped as its name suggests and is delivered by waiters who sport bespoke luchador masks and brandish hand-held flares and confetti cannons. “The confetti cannons are so stupid, they’re so cheesy,” says Pelly. “But if you don’t take yourself too seriously, that adds to the fun.”
Despite his ruddy-cheeked, almost boyish exterior, it becomes apparent that the Stowe-educated Pelly is not short on ambition. He talks about extending the Tonteria brand across London, maybe even to the city’s more easterly environs – although one can’t help but think that might not be its natural habitat. Inspiration for Tonteria came from bars and restaurants in the US, but Pelly adds that he thinks that London’s scene is sufficiently strong, and Tonteria sufficiently different, for it to be a successful export. “To be honest, I get annoyed that [in London] we’re seen to be a little bit behind New York. Although this place was influenced by [US bar and restaurant] Esquina, we haven’t copied it. I’d say this is ahead of New York; we could definitely take this back there.”
Warming to his theme, Pelly mentions that Nick Jones, the man who set up Soho House, and subsequently 10 other “Houses” across the globe, is something of a role model. “I mention him in every interview I ever do,” he says. “Now we’re in touch via email I have to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m nearly your weird stalker’ but I do think he is incredible, he has set the benchmark.”
By contrast, Pelly’s co-founder Burton, who joins us at the table, is more overtly focused on business matters. All neatly-groomed beard, monogrammed shirt cuffs and bespoke Italian slippers (“I’m at home here”), he doesn’t drink but lacks nothing in conviviality. He goes on to diligently explain how the specially designed booths at which we’re sitting will be converted into dancing platforms and raised seating later in the evening. Under our seats there are even concealed spaces to store handbags and leads to charge mobile phones. He also mentions a role model: Jeremy King, one half of Corbin & King, the London restaurant tsars whose stable includes the Wolseley.
It says something about the pair that they namecheck more established figures from their industry. Indeed, men such as Jones, Corbin and King are still the royalty of London’s restaurant and bar scene, but there’s no doubt that Pelly and Burton are pretenders to the crown.