A quarter of a century ago, the City was a very different place. Back then men in suits – and they were still mostly men – would commute in early, spend a few hours at their desk before taking a long, usually boozy lunch. After work, they would either decant to the West End or simply go home. A handful of pubs in the Square Mile would stay open until 8pm but there was nowhere to speak of that served dinner.
Two restaurants helped to change that – and they both celebrate their 25th anniversary this month.
One is 1 Lombard Street and the other is Coq d’Argent, two fine dining destinations that were founded within a week of each other in 1998.
“Before we opened there was nothing here. Nothing,” says former banker and 1 Lombard Street founder Soren Jessen. “There was Balls Brothers, Corney & Barrow wine bar, a few pubs and Sweetings, which was only open five lunches a week. I remember people telling me that the City is a graveyard for people who try to develop an evening business.”
Sean Gavin, operations manager at D&D, the owner of Coq d’Argent, also stresses how much the City landscape has shifted: “When people come in to Coq d’Argent for the first time I give them the grand tour and take them out to the garden, which has a big wow factor. I always tell them that when we opened, there was only one skyscraper in the City – the Natwest building, now known as Tower 42. It’s hard to imagine that.”
Today the City is a thriving dining destination, with options to rival even Soho and the West End. Coq d’Argent and 1 Lombard Street have been joined by Jason Atherton’s City Social, the various options at The Ned, the Bloomberg Arcade, M Restaurant, and the Square Mile outpost of Bob Bob Ricard. So what changed?
“It’s a chicken and the egg thing,” says Jessen. “There weren’t any restaurants because people escaped as soon as they finished work. And there weren’t any people hanging around the City because there weren’t any restaurants. Someone had to be brave and turn that tide. So we went for it.”
The evolution of both venues reflects the changes that have taken place in the City itself. When they launched, both relied on lunch service, with customers gradually changing their attitudes over those formative early years.
“Not many restaurants even bothered to open in the evening,” says Gavin. “This gradually changed because of the influence from the American market, which discouraged people from entertaining their clients during work hours with boozy lunches, where they might embarrass the company. So gradually the City became a dinner destination as well as lunch, with lots of people drinking after work, too.”
While both restaurants have solid options for vegans and vegetarians, neither has pandered to trends within the restaurant industry, with 1 Lombard Street maintaining its modern European brasserie-style menu and Coq d’Argent serving more classically French dishes. Both have noticed a drop-off in the traditional boozy lunch, with Jessen saying customers are now more likely to order less but more expensive: “Instead of having a bottle of wine, they might have one or two glasses, but better ones.”
One area where changing attitudes are especially noticeable is the way people dress. “It’s changed unbelievably,” says Gavin. “When I first started, everybody was suited and booted and it was a much more male crowd. It gradually moved to suits without ties, to chinos and a shirt and now people coming in trainers with a suit.”
Jessen says the introduction of ‘casual Fridays’ was the start of the trend and now it’s not unusual to see finance workers in casual clothes.
It’s a testament to the staying power of both institutions that they have managed to weather the two worst financial crises in modern history.
“When Lehman Brothers hit, the world changed for us,” says Gavin. “For a few years while the recession was on, nobody wanted to be seen to be splashing money around so people would come in and have one course and a glass of wine and be back at their desk. Not ideal for a restaurant.”
And then there was Covid. “It almost finished us,” says Jessen. “I’ve had Covid three times and it didn’t kill me but lockdown nearly did. It was handled appallingly.”
Both bounced back strongly from those years, benefitting from the pent up demand for restaurants created by two years of home cooking and takeaways.
“People had been cooped up for months and they were desperate to get out,” says Gavin. “Only Fridays remain a challenge, with so many people continuing to work from home.”
The next big frontier for the City is weekend business, with an increase in residential property, an influx of hotels and overall increases in tourist numbers finally threatening to make the area a truly seven-day operation.
Coq d’Argent has been open on Saturday for some time and a couple of weeks ago 1 Lombard Street joined them. It seems absurd that it took so long, but Jessen says he’s not surprised: “I’ve gotten used to the City taking a long time. But it’s like Warren Buffett says, time is a friend of a good business and the enemy of a bad business. If you know your business is solid, it doesn’t matter.”
A quarter of a century is a long old time but who would bet against both restaurants staying the course of time?
“I can tell you that in 25 years, we will still be here,” says Jessen. “And it’ll be a seven day operation. Maybe by that time it will be my daughter or someone else in charge but 1 Lombard Street will be around, I guarantee it.”
Over the next few weeks both restaurants are hosting special events to celebrate their big birthday – make sure you drop in and raise a glass to a pair of institutions that helped shape the City we know today.