Hugh Osmond, owner of 31 Below, shares his thoughts on food and drink
Interview: Viel Richardson
1. I just love the hospitality industry; it is the best job in the world. It is about enabling people to have a good time. The only way you are successful is if people keep coming back, which they will only do if they are enjoying themselves. Being in the business of making this possible is wonderful. What’s not to like?
2. I worked with Luke Johnson to relaunch Pizza Express in the 1990s and then founded the Punch Tavern chain of pubs, of which I was chairman until 2001. After taking a break from the restaurant and hospitality world to work in other areas I realised how much I missed it, so when the chance came, our company Sun Capital Partners bought the Strada chain in 2014.
3. I really love the atmosphere you find in a really good bar. It has a feel that you just don’t get in other places, but the problem is that bars have been a bit squeezed out in recent years. I want 31 Below to have that atmosphere.
4. 31 Below is a bar where you don’t have to leave when you feel that you want something to eat. I wanted to create a bar where you could hang around all day. I live in Marylebone and there are good pubs, great restaurants and nice cafes but nowhere where you could do all of those things, nowhere you could go to at any time of day or night and find what it is that you want.
5. In places with two levels, it is very easy for the lower floor to become simply an overspill area and we were determined to avoid that here. We have made the downstairs all about kicking back with a drink in a comfy chair or sofa and having fun with friends. The building is at number 31 and we wanted to signal that there was something interesting going on downstairs, so the name 31 Below seemed to fit.
6. The upstairs is all about popping in for coffee, something healthy to eat, maybe a juice. The idea is for it to be a local cafe for people who live and work in Marylebone—the kind of place I would drop in to. The two floors have been designed to meet very different needs, which between them should cater for someone’s wants, whatever time it is.
7. We spent a lot of time on the menu and head chef Matt Fanthorpe has done a great job. We have gone for a lot of sharing dishes. The idea is that you could have any one of them during the day for lunch or a quick snack. If you are there in the evening, all the dishes are designed to work with a cocktail or a bottle of wine.
8. I was clear that I wanted a ‘no gloop’ menu—nothing smothered with rich sauces. The dishes are healthy and substantial but there’s nothing on the menu that you can’t eat at the bar.
9. For me, on a cocktail menu, less is more: design a small list of great cocktails, no more than 12 drinks, and make sure all your bar staff can make them quickly and extremely well every time. Long lists containing complicated cocktails make it hard to maintain a consistently high quality.
10. Consistency is so important. I’ve had the experience of recommending a place because I had a great cocktail there, but then you go back with your friends and the same drink is shocking. It’s upsetting for you, for your friends and for the bar staff.
11. One of my pet peeves in bars is when a group of seven or so people all order cocktails and suddenly the barman is tied up for the next 25 minutes. For that reason, at 31 Below, we have avoided cocktails that are massively complex and take ages to make.
12. I opened in Marylebone because I live nearby and my office is on Marylebone Lane. I thought that if I was going to try out something new, why not do it on my doorstep. That way I can nip in and see how things are going.
13. The people who work with me in the office are proving to be a great source of feedback. That is not the only test, but they are paying customers and will be honest about what they think.
14. Marylebone is just a brilliant area. It is the best part of London. I love it here.