The boss of Gaucho has declared the days of London suits going out and “eating a kilo of steak” are over, as the restaurant chain prepares to rebound out of administration with a fresh, millennial-friendly look.
Martin Williams, founder and chief executive of M Restaurants, is back in the saddle at Gaucho after leaving in 2014, as the City-boy favourite fights its way back from the brink.
His orders? Moving the chain, where meals used to be a “rite of passage” of boozy celebrations after big business deals, towards a “younger, more female demographic” and trying to make it less synonymous with steak – while still maintaining its reputation for high-quality meat and wine.
Gaucho is set to exit administration today, following the successful use of the process du jour, a company voluntary arrangement (CVA), that lets struggling businesses renegotiate its rents. It was bought out of the dining doldrums by Investec and Hong Kong investment bank SC Lowy — but too late for its sister restaurant Cau, which closed all its branches.
Williams praised its buyers, saying he felt the bankers had fond memories of the struggling restaurant, and saw it still had legs.
“Everyone has an opinion of what Gaucho should be like, but it’s basically: ‘We love it, used to go a lot, we don’t go so often now, we’d like to go back again more regularly,’” Williams tells me in the members’ area of an M Restaurant, off Threadneedle Street.
“What you don’t want”, he says, “is a veto vote”: where Gaucho is struck off as a dining option because one member of a dining group is vegetarian, vegan or – God forbid – just not in the mood for a steak. “Historically,” he says, people in those categories “would probably go: ‘we can’t go to Gaucho’.”
Williams jokes that “being the vegan’s restaurant of choice is probably a step too far” for Gaucho, but that, right now, 90 per cent of diners at its 16 UK restaurants eat steak. Williams wants to trim that number down to 70 per cent, and the restaurant is introducing a range of fish- and vegetable-based options to ease the transition.
Part of his plans lie in diversifying the chain: making sure, for example, that Gaucho Smithfields (stripped-down, craft beer on tap) is a radically different proposition to its Chancery branch (fine wines, swankier decor).
Williams says the Square Mile produces the “most discerning guests”. He lauds the typical City diner: “They know their wine, they know their steak, and they have been enjoying both for over a decade.”
Even with a fresh look and menu, Gaucho still faces a struggling sector, which Williams says has faced a “perfect storm”.
Adding to this, he says, London’s restaurant scene is facing the slow erosion of its workforce, as European workers swerve the UK over Brexit, and restaurants compete for a “smaller pot” of staff.
The challenge isn’t over, he tells me, insisting that this culinary form of natural selection is a positive, but when pockets get squeezed, however, there are winners and losers. “I think in the next two, three years there’ll be a lot fewer restaurants in London than there are today,” he says.