“People thought we were crazy, opening an oyster bar in Soho…” reflects Jamie Poulton, the co-owner of Randall & Aubin as he sits at one of the many marble countertops in his restaurant.
Of course, that was twenty years ago now, and the London food scene – and London itself – were very different places. “We were opening opposite prostitutes and drug dealers” he says, with a knowing smile. Now, of course, Randall & Aubin is a Soho institution, sitting opposite third-wave coffee shops and frozen yoghurt spots. But this is now, and that was then.
And then, in 1996, Soho was as yet ungentrified and uncommercialized. It was still a vice-laden island in the capital’s nucleus. There were a fair few restaurants, to be sure, but none of them had heard of craft beer, or sous-vide, or… kale. And they certainly hadn’t heard of the Great Recession. “Everything was going bananas – there was no stopping anyone. It was very hedonistic” he says while pondering their decision to take over a butcher’s shop on Brewer Street. “They basically just handed us the keys. But it wasn’t a total steal. The floor fell through.”
So together he and chef Ed Baines duly scrubbed up, fixed the floor, spruced up and kept as many original features as they could (including the name), which was apparently more of a cost-saving measure than an almost clairvoyant pre-hipster aesthetic masterstroke. And this left them with an accidentally nifty concept: no traditional tables. Just all-bar seating, white tile walls, and gorgeous marble countertops everywhere. They opened with no fanfare, no PR blitz. “It wasn’t a brilliantly designed plan”, he tells us, “There was no launch date. When it was finished, we just opened the door”.
Two decades on, we ask him how he’s managed to keep the place open, and survive in the famously ruthless restaurant game for so long. “In order to make it last, you have to be in it” he says, tilting his eyes upwards “I love this place. My office is upstairs. I’m here everyday. Even if all I do all day is just change a lightbulb, it’s worth it. And we have staff that have worked here for eighteen years”. He points out the waiters and waitresses gliding past hauling trays of crabs & pasta “sixteen years, twelve years…”. He’s a little bamboozled by the changing restaurant culture, and how heavily it leans on “The Experience”, as opposed to the dishes. “The food’s no longer important. We get our fish from specific fisherman in Scotland – not a market, or a fishmonger – they come straight to us” he says, while wondering whether some newer restaurants forget that they reason they exist is to, you know, feed people.
They’ve always decided against opening a second venue in London, largely because of the likely comparisons that would be drawn between it and the original Randall & Aubin. However they are launching a new restaurant in Manchester, which is currently set to open in May: a larger, great northern counterpart ready to forge its own identity with a dedicated cocktail bar, a caviar bar…
… and maybe even a few tables.
Randall & Aubin | 16 Brewer St, W1F 0SG
If you’re in Soho…. you should check out our guide to the best of the neighbourhood.