At table with the quiet star of the gastropub revolution

Somehow, Eyre Brothers restaurant– David Eyre’s exotic sequel to the Eagle in Clerkenwell – has stayed under the radar. Yes, it’s been in the Time Out guides for every year it’s been open, but for a restaurant of this calibre, you’d be surprised at the amount of noise it hasn’t been getting.

The beautiful restaurant, all dark clean lines of Jatoba wood, is the product of Spanish and Portuguese influences. Its clientele is varied – city boys, electricians, celebrity chefs, the dressed-up, the dressed-down.

But Eyre Brothers is soon to go above-radar: a menu featuring David Eyre’s signature dishes has been launched to celebrate the restaurant’s tenth birthday, and the buzz has started.

Fifty-year-old Eyre, reluctant founder of the original gastropub, likes to think of himself as “a fully paid up member of the awkward squad”.

“Maybe that’s why I choose to have a Spanish and Portuguese restaurant in the middle of Shoreditch that sells Granny’s cooking,” he muses, ordering Madeira and Porto marinated duck foie gras, salt cod brandada with pimientos, a soft boiled egg and the Ibérico pork chop. A glance down the menu will make you wish your Granny could whip up a spatchcocked quail roasted with truffled red grapes on a Sunday afternoon.

His colonial upbringing is present in his cooking. Eyre grew up in former Portuguese colony Mozambique, with a Londoner father and a mother from Guyana – not in the “sexy beaches” part, but near “swamps and mosquitoes”. He was sent to boarding school in Zimbabwe from the age of six, so his memories of food oscillate from the incredible (“nobody does seafood better than the Portuguese”) to the terrible (“horrid horrid horrid food at school”). And the food was varied at home: “it could easily have been a roast in the British manner or a west Indian curry”.

Eyre fell in love with Spanish flavours while working with Spanish chefs at the Eagle pub. And now: “I employed three or four Spanish boys in the kitchen: one from Catalunya, one from the Basque region, one from Extremadura (José Pizarro) and they had never eaten each other’s food until they were [at Eyre Brothers].”

At first glance, there seems no logic to the progression from the Eagle to Eyre Brothers. But the Eagle became a victim of its own success, and Eyre wanted out. When he first opened the pub with Mike Belben (who still runs it, and has gone on to win plaudits for the Anchor and Hope in Waterloo, and Great Queen Street), they were a new type of operator. A pub simply serving good food. “Pubs had terrible food,” he says. “At the time I thought, why can’t I get good spaghetti vongole in a pub, why can’t I?”

And then, in 1991, food critic Charles Campion referred to the Eagle as a gastropub, and the term took off. “We thought we were opening a nice little quiet place,” says Eyre, eyes wide. “We didn’t think we were opening a monster. After seven years, I’d had enough. The busier I got, the more miserable I became”. When asked on Radio 4’s Today programme in September whether he was glad this year’s Good Food Guide had dispensed of the term, he thought “bloody right...just because somewhere’s a gastropub, doesn’t mean the food’s going to be good there. Why not just call it a pub? You don’t say of hotels serving food, gastro-hotel”. Despite his aversion to the term (“I always think it sounds like a belch”), it was not enough to avoid releasing the Eagle cookbook: “Recipes from the Original Gastro Pub”.

Eyre Brothers is the antithesis to the elbow-to-elbow pub banter with its white tablecloths, background jazz and restrained hum of chatter. “It’s horrible when it gets too busy,” Eyre says after nipping out for a cigarette. “We’ve always kept things quite quiet. I like keeping my head low. I don’t really want the restaurant to be banged up full every day. It’s the only time you make money, but it’s not what I did it for”.

And what next for David Eyre? “I can honestly see myself in the late 70s – barefoot, toes in the sand,” he says. “I’ll have two planks of wood nailed to two coconut trees, and I’ll sell one cold beer, one type of rum cocktail, and one type of grilled fish. And I might actually find it the most profitable place I’ll ever have.” Eyre Brothers, 70 Leonard Street, EC2A 4QX. 020 7613 5346. Four course tenth anniversary menu runs until the end of November. £38 per person, or £60 with matching wines.