Des McDonald can lay claim to being the busiest man in the restaurant industry today – being behind the likes of Vintage Salt and Holborn Dining Room – but there’s plenty of enthusiasm still sizzling away, as the opening of Frontier Room at Q Grill Camden shows
Without realising it during my interview with Des McDonald, I am gushing. Over the past month I have been to three of his restaurants – Holborn Dining Room, Vintage Salt on Upper Street and Q Grill’s recent launch of the Frontier Room – out of choice, not due to research. All very different, all brilliant in my eyes.
Take the former, to begin with. A part of the five-star Rosewood London, Holborn Dining Room is simply epic. ‘I always start with the DNA of a building,’ Des says down the phone. ‘There’s such history in that space. For me, it was very straight-forward when I walked into the building – it had to become a grand brasserie. It’s got the grand structure, so I wanted to create some theatre by dropping the lighting down.’
Then there’s Vintage Salt, originally called The Fish & Chip Shop and, importantly, Des’s first venture when he first struck out on his own (opened in May 2013). ‘I don’t try to reinvent the wheel,’ he says on the concept. ‘I like to pay homage. Take a prawn cocktail or fish pie, classic ingredients that go into these have been bastardised a lot over the years, so I wanted to go back to basics with comfort food. I loved the idea of a posh fish and chip shop, and I opened another in the City and then took the same brand to Selfridges. The problem with a very generic brand is that it works well in London, but when we started to talk about the idea outside of the capital, there are 50,000 other fish and chip shops! We decided to come up with a name that gave it more of an identity. We felt vintage conjured up the nature of the design, and salt is a key component in fish and chips. But I have a lot of affection for the Upper Street restaurant. It exceeded my expectations – and still does.’
Q Grill in Camden was the third of Des’ restaurants to open, ‘using great cuts of meat in a funky space’, which was recently complemented by the opening of cocktail bar Frontier Room above it. ‘I do a lot of pop-ups as there are always things we want to open, trying and playing with concepts before launching into the market. Frontier Room is a taster,’ Des explains. Invite-only, Frontier Room is a bar in the speakeasy mould offering innovative twists on classic drinks, accompanied by jazz and swing tunes.
After 35 years in the business, Des shows no signs of slowing down. He has just opened The Printing Press in Edinburgh, as well as The Refectory and Chapter House in York, and 2016 has quite a slate: a new Q Grill in the City, a new pub Hope & Field in Queen’s Park, Asian fusion restaurant Rofuto in Birmingham, and more concepts heading to Selfridges. ‘I still love the business,’ he gushes.
WORDS Mark Kebble
Frontier Room at Q Grill, 29-33 Chalk Farm Road NW1 8AJ; 020 7267 2678; q-grill.co.uk