You wait for one, and then two come along at once… Meet Steve Ball and Riz Shaikh, the duo behind Brixton’s biggest new venues, The Blues Kitchen and Phonox
Ten years ago I sat down with fresh-faced duo, Steve Ball and Riz Shaikh, to discuss the launch venue of their business, The Columbo Group. It was a proper boozer, The Old Queens Head in Islington, which proved to be such a success that further pubs and clubs under The Columbo Group banner starting springing up around North and East London. But, finally, they have ventured south of the river. ‘Why now?’ Steve repeats my question about not one, but two openings in Brixton. ‘We have just got round to it!’
It’s not surprising it’s taken a little while, particularly when you take into account that everything starts with the building their ventures occupy. ‘The buildings our businesses operate in are so important,’ nods Steve, ‘they are all very unique. We wouldn’t take a bad site just for the sake of doing a business. To some extent, this goes back to why now – the honest answer is because we found the sites. If we found them five years ago, we would have done it five years ago.’
Five years ago the site where we now sit was about to become the Electric Social, a mainstay of the Brixton nightlife scene. When the opportunity to purchase the site came up, The Columbo Group did just that and, now, The Blues Kitchen Brixton has been born. The third Blues Kitchen site in London after Camden and Shoreditch, it will offer over two floors the best in blues, roots and soul, alongside some of the best BBQ this side of the Atlantic.
It also looks fabulous. Riz is the man behind the design of The Columbo Group’s venues and spent a lot of time in America sourcing unique products to bring back to Brixton. Being set over two floors was a bonus – ‘Having the stand-alone club upstairs meant I could really create a space that would complement that, rather than having to think about the dining aspect too,’ Riz enthuses – but the attention to detail becomes apparent when he points out his two favourite aspects.
I love using old tiles. They are nostalgic and beautiful, but also very durable and practical
‘I love using old tiles,’ he grins. ‘They are nostalgic and beautiful, but also very durable and practical. Design is as much about looking nice to making sure the space works. Then there’s the lighting and the old Tiffany shades I have used. They used to be in demand, but then came to be seen as quite naff. The original shades are stunning and it was great to use them in a setting they deserve. But design is just one facet of a cohesive product where everything has to work in unison. The food, the music, the atmosphere, everything goes together to make The Blues Kitchen what it is.’
Heart and soul have clearly been poured into the project, which makes it all the more surprising they have opened a club just around the corner too. ‘It’s just plain stupidity to open up two businesses at the same time,’ Steve laughs of Phonox. ‘A year ago Riz and I opened up two venues at the same time and we swore we would never do it again… Then circumstances conspired to create a situation where we ended up doing it again!’
That situation was the opportunity to take over the site where Plan B originally stood. ‘We wanted to create a proper nightclub,’ Steve says on the concept. ‘When I used to go clubbing it was less about big name DJs and more about a community of like-minded people and great music. Today the community element isn’t always there as people tend to follow particular DJs. Our vision for Phonox is to try and hark back to a day of clubbing when community was important, and it’s about regulars and less about big name DJs.’
Jasper Jones is their resident DJ: ‘In my 20 years in the business, he is one of the best DJs I have come across’
Jasper Jones is their resident DJ – ‘In my 20 years in the business, he is one of the best DJs I have come across,’ Steve praises – and so far, so good. ‘We can keep the door price very low and we can ensure we create the right environment – it’s not about selling as many tickets as we can,’ Steve says. ‘It’s about people having a wonderful experience.’
What’s apparent is that the guys have the same passion as they did a decade ago when I first met them, and they are clearly happy to be joining us South Londoners. ‘We have always liked Brixton – it’s a very creative and cool area, and we have had fantastic feedback already,’ Steve smiles. Is this the start of a southern invasion by The Columbo Group? Both remain tight-lipped, but know a lot of hard work lies ahead. ‘When we opened our first place we didn’t have a clue,’ Steve says, ‘and back then standards weren’t so exacting. The time and effort we put into the curation of a venue – where our beers come from, where your meat for your burger comes from – is so important now, but we can meet the demand and expectations from the public.’ It’s sure to be worth the wait.
WORDS Mark Kebble
The Blues Kitchen, 40 Acre Lane SW2 5SP; 020 7274 0591; theblueskitchen.com/brixton
Phonox, 418 Brixton Road SW9 7AY; 020 7095 9411; phonox.co.uk