The Bon Viveur of Greek Street
The London restaurant world is one of larger than life characters, ghosts of much-loved patrons and an ever-rotating cast of historical, grand or raffish establishments. The chairman of L’Escargot, Brian Clivaz, has lived and breathed this world his whole career
There are radiators and hoovers in all our lives, and I have taken to judging where people sit on this scale by thinking about going to have lunch with them. The thought of meeting some people gives me a bit of a knot of dread way down in my gut, some induce a bit of a boring duty feeling and quite a few these days make me feel like remaining in my garden and pruning my roses but there are a few who always put a smile on my face, and make me race through whatever else I have to do so that I be in their company more quickly. Brian Clivaz falls into this category. The first conversation we ever had was about the ghosts of restaurants that litter the streets of London. Chez Solange in Cranbourn Street is one I mention often and usually I get a blank response, but not from Brian, he countered with Overtons in Victoria and we both loved the fact that you could still the long darkened once illuminated sign when you descend into the tube. We talked about the different incarnations of the Ivy, about Les Ambassadeurs and Wheelers, about Bentley’s Oyster Bar when Parry de Winton and my father drank Gin and It and played spoof and poker all afternoon. It was wonderful.
Both of us had spent our childhoods surrounded by the characters in the restaurant trade who are now long gone, Gaston Berlemont at the French, Sonny and Geoffrey Russell Hay, Derek Bentley, characters all. We understand a world that few people have any recall of these days. I was used to trailing my father and Brian Barnett of Augustus Barnett off licences fame round Mayfair and Shepherd Market, ending up in afternoon drinking dens where you had to knock on the door during pub closing hours. I found it all wonderful, the characters impossibly glamorous and the long list of clubs and restaurants where my father had accounts cheered up my teens and twenties a lot. The Belfry Club, now Mossimans, all my father’s Italian restaurants in Chelsea, The Etoile and the White Tower, these were places in those days where celebrities looked for interesting conversation and places to spend their time, rather than looking for paparazzi to record their every move before their PR company put it on social media. Brian remains one of the few true restauranteurs in London who is impressed by character, by wit and by interesting people rather than by momentary Love Island notoriety.
He is one of a small band of restaurant trade gents who understand charm, and hospitality, and who never forgets a face, good or bad. He manages at L’Escargot to recreate that feeling of belonging that used to exist at the French, where Francis Bacon and Dylan Thomas would sit drinking with impoverished but charming Soho locals and where Gaston would despatch and collect a band of unlikely foes and friends and create an atmosphere that became addictive
With all this in mind, I sat down with Brian and after a welcoming kiss on both cheeks, I should point out he has the softest skin in London as well as a wonderful tailor, here are his answers.
Did you have a background in the catering trade?
Yes, my father, uncle, and grandfather were all in the business. My father told me not to go into catering as it was a tough business but I never did as I was told!
How did you start your career?
I was an apprentice at the Dorchester and I loved every minute of it
What attracted you to working in the London restaurant scene?
From an early age I went to restaurants with my parents… The Ivy, The Mirabelle on Curzon Street in its really elegant days, the Meurice in Paris, all gold and baroque wonder, and Langan’s. They gave me the restaurant bug.
Where have you worked and which have you enjoyed the most?
So many places… I loved The Dorchester, The Hotel Meurice and Plaza Athenee. Four Ways in Bermuda was great fun, and starting up Home House was amazing and organising the World Chess Championship when I was at Simpson’s in the Strand was very satisfying and quite challenging.
You obviously love dogs, do you think they should be welcome in all restaurants?
Perhaps not all restaurants as some are very tightly packed, but certainly more welcome as in France.
Do you enjoy working in restaurants with a rich history?
Yes, I love to dream about who has dined in a place and about what secrets the walls hold, for example Simpson’s has drawings on the walls of the cellar from when guests decamped there during an air raid.
Art is obviously also a great passion of yours, which artists do you enjoy most?
I really loved the Rembrandt exhibition at the Hermitage which shows what an incredible artist he was. I have a broad appreciation of art, everything from Picasso (natch), Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, both regulars at L’Escargot, David Hockney, a regular at Langan’s, and Rodin, an Arts Club member.
Name your five favourite dishes
Omelette “Arnold Bennett” – when it’s done properly, Roast grouse and Lobster “Thermidor.”
I’ve recently grown fond of really good sushi with fresh wasabi… and I have a weakness for ice cream..!
Who have you most enjoyed working with?
Anton Mosimann at The Dorchester, Walter Sommer at Fourways Bermuda, Didier Garnier at The Savoy and Laurence Isaacson at Chez Gerard and L’Escargot.
Who are your most memorable customers?
HM The Queen – whom I adore, Princess Diana, Henry Kissinger, HM King Hussein of Jordan and Salvador Dali.
Which has been the most unforgettable meal you have had?
David Morgan-Hewitt from The Goring is a great host and his birthday dinners In the Messel Suite at The Dorchester are legendary. Otherwise Pierre Koffmann’s pig’s trotters at La Tante Claire and many meals at The Connaught cooked by Michel Bourdin
What would be your last meal if you could choose?
One more Big Mac…. Ha ha..! No, really it would probably have to be Wild smoked Scotch salmon with a Criots Batard Montrachet, Roast grouse with La Tache from Romanee Conti, Raspberries and cream with Château d’Yquem and to finish Stilton and port with Taylor’s Port. Simple but sublime.