Sitting in the new M restaurant in Canary Wharf, a few days before it officially opens today, is a slightly surreal experience. Overlooking the river in the new, diamond-shaped Newfoundland Quay tower, a row of people in wetsuits are doing laps around the docks below us. As they approach the restaurant they glide past a “duck hotel”, one of M founder Martin Williams’ many outre ideas to help promote his ever-growing restaurant empire.
Soon the swimmers will be joined by a collection of water bikes Williams has shipped over from Monaco – he plans to hold races and keep a record of the quickest times, which will go down well with the Tough Mudder-loving, hyper-competitive bankers who populate the neighbouring towers.
The water bikes join a list of initiatives dreamt up by Williams that run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. There’s the M Yacht, which can be chartered to enjoy a meal on the Thames; a six-foot, autonomous robot Champagne waiter; regular dog-friendly brunches; a hidden member’s “den” complete with a PlayStation and table football; wine vending machines that allow you to try prohibitively expensive vintages by the glass; “steak roulette” evenings where you have a chance to “win” a cut of meat that far outstrips the price of the ticket; a petanque pitch; an annual Young Chef of the Year awards (for which I’m a judge); a 3D experience that allows you to witness the life cycle of the cobia fish. I could go on.
These ideas aren’t the result of an expensive PR operation – although there is one on board – rather they come from Williams himself, a man who seems forever on the precipice of a new plan.
“Ultimately the M brand is the result of my travels, inspirations and experiences over two decades,” Williams tells me as we settle into a bright blue banquette. “I had this eureka moment back in 2005 when a manager said to me ‘You don’t know enough about produce or Michelin starred restaurants or tasting menus or world cuisine’. And he was right, so I went on this odyssey of the world’s best restaurants – thankfully my wife also likes hospitality otherwise it would have been quite lonely.
“It was great going around the world being inspired by the best chefs, from Anthony Bourdain to Gordon Ramsay to Michel Roux to Alain Ducasse. After travelling that much and getting that much experience I needed to open a restaurant.”
It could all have been very different. After graduating from the prestigious ALRA drama school, Williams worked as a professional actor, landing roles in Casualty, ITV drama The Vice, British movie Forgive and Forget and a play at the Crucible.
“I had about three years of doing very well in acting but I had no real progression – I would come down to the last two or three for roles that could have been a big break but I never got one. The reality was I was talented but these guys were special. I was going up against Joaquin Phoenix. I realised if I wanted a career I would have to go with my other passion, which was food.”
So he worked his way up the food chain, so to speak, rising to become MD of Gaucho, which is where I first met him, almost a decade ago to the day. Three years later he’d quit to go on his travels and would soon-after open the first M restaurant on Threadneedle Street (and yes, the “M” stands for Martin).
Every day in a restaurant is like theatre – you walk in through the stage doors and you make sure everybody is reading from the script and putting on a good show.”Martin Williams
I wonder if there’s some overlap between acting and running a restaurant? “Every day in a restaurant is like theatre – you walk in through the stage doors and you make sure everybody is reading from the script and putting on a good show.”
M is now a three-strong empire, with the Victoria site opening in 2016. There’s a maximalism to the design, with touches like the Himalayan salt ageing chambers and the hidden doors lending a touch of theatricality.
The new restaurant is the most striking of them all – there’s a Riviera vibe, with liberal use of navys and turquoises. I dread to think how much the marble tiles, which look like those photographs of distant constellations taken from the Hubble telescope, must have cost.
While many people expect M restaurant to be another steakhouse in the Goodman-Boisdale-Hawksmoor mould, it’s more ambitious in its food offering. Its signature Australian wagyu and Kobe steaks are joined by dishes such as duck with compressed vodka watermelon, and yellowfin tuna tataki.
Williams ordered for us and a procession of ostentatious dishes arrived: one shrouded by rose petals, another housed in a smoke-filled glass dome, another spritzed with a perfume atomiser upon delivery. It’s fun.
The menus at the three Ms are all slightly different, with the signature steaks accompanied by Japanese-inspired dishes in Threadneedle Street, British ones in Victoria, while Canary Wharf takes its cues from Provence.
In a neat bit of culinary oroborus, Williams tried to acquire his former employer Gaucho in 2014 after it fell into administration; they went with a different buyer but that buyer was so impressed by Williams’ vision for the restaurants that they brought him in as CEO, merging the two companies into a single entity. There are now 19 Gauchos with another two slated to open later this year in Liverpool and Newcastle.
“When I was at Gaucho Canary Wharf it went from being a £2.5m turnover restaurant to a £4.2m turnover restaurant. But it was a very different landscape back then – we had rickshaws going around the estate making deliveries and bringing customers to the restaurants. There were really only three nice restaurants on the whole estate: Ubon by Nobu, Gaucho and Plateau.”
In the 10 years since, Canary Wharf has undergone an impressive cultural about-turn. Once a faceless expanse of grey and glass, it now resembles an architect’s CGI, full of tree-lined avenues, public art, food festivals and now, of course, the new Elizabeth line.
The first residential development on the estate only opened in 2020 but there are now thousands of residents, including those in the tower above M restaurant. In typical Williams style, they all received memberships to his M Club, alongside the CEO of every bank on the estate.
“There’s a huge amount of casual dining here now,” says Williams. “What Canary Wharf needs is a really good restaurant. Hopefully we fill that gap.”
As a restaurateur you basically want to make about 20 per cent profit. Because of rising costs, most companies are now making 10 per cent even if they have a decent turnover and decent rent. So anything like the energy crisis that takes another five points off you puts you right on the lineMartin Williams
So is it the best restaurant in Canary Wharf?
“Oh, 100 per cent. This is the most polished, beautiful restaurant we have. It has the learnings of the other ones behind it. The menu we have today is better for having six years of experience.”
This conversation should really have been happening three years ago, with the new restaurant first slated to open in 2019 – then Covid happened.
“Our shareholders were at their best during the pandemic,” he says. “We topped up staff salaries while the executives took a pay cut, we maintained all our staff when our competitors were sacking theirs. A lot of employers let themselves down really badly around that time but we took care of our people.
“That meant when we came out the other side we had all of our staff ready to go, we were well ahead on testing and we had invested in our terraces. It’s a completely different business than it was in 2018 and it’s doing incredibly well.”
Canary Wharf is now reporting around 150,000 retail customers a day, down from a peak of 250,000 pre-pandemic, and some of the banks now have 80 per cent of their staff back in the office – another six months and things could be back to pre-pandemic levels. Still, this is rocky terrain for any restaurateur. “Oh for sure, between Brexit and Covid and the strikes, which cost the company hundreds of thousands each time they happen, and the energy crisis…”
The restaurant group has fixed its energy prices until 2025 – had it not, Williams says rising energy bills would have cost the company an additional £3.5m a year.
“That would severely impact our profitability. As a restaurateur you basically want to make about 20 per cent profit. Because of rising costs, most companies are now making 10 per cent even if they have a decent turnover and decent rent. So anything like this crisis that takes another five points off you puts you right on the line.”
In a moment of wonderful comic timing, this conversation about the margins involved in the restaurant business is interrupted by a call: Martin’s inflatable cow costume has arrived. Later this afternoon he’s filming a promotional video in which he will run around the estate dressed as a cow to drum up interest in the new M as the opening day approaches. He’s slightly worried that he hasn’t asked permission to do the stunt, and is still deliberating whether or not to jump into the water.
It’s a great example of the two sides of Martin Williams, part businessman, part showman, and proprietor of the new best restaurant in Canary Wharf.
• To book a table at the new M restaurant Canary Wharf go to mrestaurants.co.uk or call 020 3327 7771