Restaurateurs James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy’s new venture Magpie allows diners to pick any dish their eye desires, with no-holds-barred ingredients. The only rule is that it must taste “awesome”
Heddon Street has long been a foil to Regent Street’s manic slalom. In the summer, it acts as an oasis of tranquillity set back from the sun-baked pavement of London’s most visited shopping spot. In recent years, the short street has been positioned as the Food Quarter; but despite the presence of Mourad Mazouz’s Momo and a handful of other useful and friendly places complete with terraces, Heddon Street has lacked a significant restaurant offering that allows it to fully and authentically embrace that title.
It seems like that might change, with the arrival of Magpie – the new 54-cover restaurant from James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy. While those names might ring bells with London’s food cognoscenti, Mayfairites would be forgiven for drawing a blank; the restaurateur pair’s first restaurant, the Michelin-starred Pidgin, is out in Hackney, which might as well be another country to many a West End wanderer.
Having capitalised on London’s on-the-pulse dining scene with their Secret Larder supper club, which featured a weekly-changing set menu, wine and cocktail list, food writer Ramsden and former rocker Herlihy opened Pidgin in 2015 to widespread acclaim – bringing the same sense of inclusivity and thoughtful, creative plates to East London’s happening community. By the time it won its first Michelin star last year, Pidgin had become a destination, drawing in food lovers from across town.
Now, Ramsden and Herlihy have opened Magpie – surely setting the spark for other restaurants with impressive cred to Mayfair. While on paper the leap from Hackney to Mayfair might seem significant, the restaurateurs themselves put little emphasis on it – they simply wanted to find the ideal space to house their unique concept. “Having learnt first time around how difficult it is to find restaurant property in London that fits what you need, we were pretty open-minded about where to put Magpie,” says Ramsden between sips of iced Moroccan tea, as I chat with him and Herlihy on Momo’s sun-dappled terrace. “This was the first place that came up that ticked every box we needed. It was central, the space was perfect and it had nice high ceilings. It was the first time that we could picture what Magpie was going to look like.”
Obviously, opening in a location as central and busy as Mayfair will have its perks from a business perspective, but Ramsden and Herlihy believe that great food will attract diners, no matter where it is. “I’m sure that we’ll get more tourists and people just walking past here, which we don’t get out in Hackney; but at the same time, we like to think that we’ll be a destination that people will come to,” says Herlihy – the chattier of the two. “I think in some ways, the place doesn’t matter as much as the site, and the specific thing you want to do. We’re not angling everything specifically for this area. We’re not coming here and changing what we do particularly, apart from the method of service.”
Aside from the food (more on that later), the style of service is a key part of the dining experience at Magpie. Cold and room temperature dishes make their way to tables via a trolley – off which diners can cherry-pick what looks the most appealing; while hot and slightly larger plates and desserts come in a more traditional way from the kitchen.
The idea came before Pidgin, when Herlihy read about San Francisco restaurant Statebird Provisions. He says that at that time, it felt too ambitious to offer this style of service in their first spot. “It felt like we had to make our bones…”
Ultimately, the initiative is a way of putting power in the hands of diners, not just the kitchen. “A waiter or waitress can come recommend four dishes between two, or whatever – but you are still slightly in their hands. If you order meatballs, are you going to get three, even if there’s two of you? It’s about being able to control the ebb and flow of your dinner,” explains Herlihy. “You can see everything. You can pick and choose. To see beautiful dishes going by and having the staff be super-psyched about what they are and be able to talk about them; as a diner, you’re having more of a dialogue as opposed to the control being purely with the restaurant.”
Although Magpie’s trolley service serves a purpose unlike many new restaurant gimmicks, Ramsden and Herlihy, they are savvy to the fact that restaurants, more than ever, are having to attract diners in unusual, unique ways. “With so many great restaurants – but also just so many restaurants – opening, you do sort of need something to mark you out, especially in the middle of town,” thinks Ramsden. “In an ideal world, that would just be having fantastic food; but the little quirks are what make you memorable and desirable. Whether that’s having an all-natural wine list or a magician. You need to have something that will make you a point of conversation.” Ultimately though, it all goes back to the food, and serving the experience of eating. “It all comes down to the dishes you’re doing. There are places that just do a really specific cuisine from a particular region – restaurants that only do Northern Thai food, or only ramen.” He says that if the trolley service was just a gimmick, they wouldn’t do it. “It’s got to work, and it will. It’s a really fun way to eat, it’s exciting and you feel like you’re in control. It’s a point of difference, but it’s a difference for a reason – because it’s a cool way to eat dinner.”
Throughout the supper club years and now with Pidgin and Magpie, the pair’s culinary approach has stayed consistent, in that there are seemingly no rules – other than it has to be unique to them. “Our approach to food makes things easy, in that nothing is off the table. There’s no ingredient or region that we don’t take ideas and inspiration from,” explains Ramsden. “It’s literally just ingredients that we think would be nice together,” ventures Herlihy. “If a dish isn’t a killer and isn’t absolutely awesome straight off the bat, then it won’t work.” Although the menu will change often, diners might enjoy expertly-prepared dishes from head chef Adolfo de Cecco including mackerel crudo with blueberry kosho and fennel pollen; udon noodles with paitan broth, calabrese sausage and stracciatella; and hake, lardo, black garlic dashi and daikon. Cocktails are all “lush and boozy”, and feature unlikely ingredients like ancho chillies. The brief James gives to his wine suppliers is that “there’s just got to be something different about it” – whether that is an unusual grape variety, a mainstream grape variety in an unusual region, “or whether the winemaker has one eye.”
Despite this being a manic time for the restaurateurs, they still have their eyes on other sites. “We’ve always got things floating around in the ether. We’ll probably start poking our noses into various sites in the next few months once this is up and running. There are plenty of ideas knocking around.”
10 Heddon Street.