Demise of many big restaurant chains has opened up exciting opportunities for chefs specialising in distinctive, regional food – Stephen Jardine

I have seen the future and the omens are good.

Russell Norman may have discovered the future of restaurants during a trip to Florence (Picture: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)
Russell Norman may have discovered the future of restaurants during a trip to Florence (Picture: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)

On a side street in London near the ancient Smithfield meat market, a new restaurant opened its doors late last year. It is small, humble and unpretentious but this one place might just be the best thing to happen to the hospitality sector since the pandemic started.

Opening a new restaurant at the moment is a bit like jumping out of a plane without knowing if you are wearing a top of the range parachute or a backpack full of spuds. It could go either way.

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Luckily this place is the creation of the man who knows more about eating out than a busload of Michelin inspectors. A former operations director for London’s top restaurant group, Caprice Holdings, Russell Norman grabbed his chance during the financial crash to go it alone and create an alternative to high-priced upmarket restaurants.

Polpo served small sharing plates of food and within a decade had morphed into a leading restaurant group with 16 venues and a brilliant restaurant reputation. Then came the problems with venture capital investors and the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin. Licking his wounds afterwards, Russell Norman said he would never open another restaurant.

However an extended research trip to Florence changed all that and led to the launch of Brutto. Put simply, it’s the kind of restaurant everyone wants to have just down the road.

A warm welcome from the man himself, paper menus, checked tablecloths, candles in chianti bottles, amazing food, lovely service and five-quid Negronis, what’s not to like?

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At first glance, it has the look of something thrown together but in reality, from the lighting to the music, everything has been painstakingly worked out because it all matters. It was the best fun I’ve had eating out in two years and when we left at the end of the evening, I really expected to somehow be in a side street near the Uffizi Gallery, not down the road from Farringdon tube station.

So why does that matter to us here in Scotland? Russell Norman has the answer. In an interview when Brutto launched, he said: “It feels now like there’s an opportunity for first-timers, for inexperienced but ambitious and creative restaurateurs to open restaurants that are very specific and very regional.”

We are seeing that already. Restaurants like Heron and The Palmerston have brought fresh creativity and energy to Scotland’s capital just when it needed it most. Rewind just a few years and Edinburgh’s digestion system was being choked by the big brands snapping up property and churning out the same food as in every other town and city in the land.

The pandemic has changed that. Many of the chains have gone and they leave behind sites begging for tenants. Add in staff who are taking this chance to go it alone, customers desperate for something new and you have a really exciting opportunity to hit the reset button when it comes to eating out.

Before Covid, parts of the restaurant sector had become so bloated, it had lost it’s sense of purpose. Lockdown was brutal and painful for hospitality but from the dying embers of that bin fire, interesting sparks are starting to emerge lighting up what could be the future.

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