Balans Soho Society started life as a sandwich bar on Old Compton Street and quickly made a name for itself thanks to its late night opening hours. And now there’s a branch on Kensington High Street, where you can still find that Soho/boho vibe from breakfast till midnight…
‘Today, when you have a restaurant or bar, there’s a huge amount of work that goes on behind the scenes, establishing who you are and what you do, but that wasn’t so much the case in the 1980s,’ says Balans Soho Society owner, David Taylor. ‘If you delivered food on time and with a smile that’s what people wanted. Now,’ he glances to his right, ‘you have a tree in the middle of the restaurant!’
Balans Soho Society has quite a story behind it. It started life as a sandwich bar, launched by Taylor and his business partner, on Old Compton Street and quickly made a name for itself thanks to its late night opening hours. ‘We catered for lots of different people,’ Taylor remembers. ‘At 8am there would be the builders, then people who worked in the theatre, then Soho faces like Ronnie Scott and Rowan Atkinson. Then later people would empty out of the clubs and come to us.’
Such was the demand for this simple concept of good food and service that in 1993 they opened their first restaurant just down the road. ‘What we were quite good at was making sure people got what they wanted and being quite responsive,’ Taylor says.
‘There was a real gay scene in Old Compton Street and it quickly became a fashionable place to be, and we were in the heart of that. We simply served the people who wanted to come to us. We were the first place to have what was known as a gay friendly restaurant, having all the glass doors open. Looking back, if we wanted to take another route we could have – we could have opened ten places, sold it to franchises and dominated the world. We just tended to do whatever came next.’
There was a real gay scene in Old Compton Street and it quickly became a fashionable place to be, and we were in the heart of that. We simply served the people who wanted to come to us
Fast forward to 2016 and Taylor now owns the English side of the business, which includes the Kensington branch we find ourselves in today. Was there any doubt about opening a place with Soho in the name in the heart of Kensington?
‘We have had loyal customers who have always loved us, but the person walking past – which probably included you – didn’t think twice about coming in. I thought about what we had in the beginning and that was Soho. More and more people I spoke to I found out had ended up in our Soho restaurant at 3am. Although we have five restaurants now, we are not a chain, we are not corporate, that Soho/bohemian vibe is still there.’
It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but all bases are well covered here. The food, for a start, is great, conjured up by Executive Chef Crispin Chetwynd, who has quite the story too having spent time touring the globe with the likes of Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd. ‘We still try to do everything really well,’ Taylor says of the all day dining options. ‘We source products from the likes of Ginger Pig and Forman’s, we do a lot of work in making sure we have got good ingredients. Those things we are serious about.’
The food is great, conjured up by Executive Chef Crispin Chetwynd who spent time touring the globe with the likes of Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd
A little more playful is the design, which stems from the vision of Simon Costin, who made his name creating outlandish fashion shows for Alexander McQueen, and which included that tree in the middle of the restaurant. ‘I was terrified,’ Taylor laughs about the time he was told about that design idea. ‘But my job is to be brave enough not to get all functional and operational. We grew out of Soho and are a part of it, but you can end up taking yourself too seriously. So if someone wants to put a tree up, let them put a tree up!’
Things look great for Balans Soho Society, but does Taylor ever miss those halcyon days of the 80s? ‘It all sounds great,’ he admits, ‘but I used to get up at 4am, work till midnight, go home for three hours… My wife said when she first met me I was green because I hadn’t seen daylight!’
187 Kensington High Street W8 6SH; 020 7376 0115; balans.co.uk