Tom Conran has extended his mini-empire of London venues with a tequila lounge where you can indulge happily without fear of hangovers, he tells William Sitwell
TEN PAST FOUR in the afternoon on a Tuesday, and Tom Conran is sipping from a pint of Guinness at his pub, the Cow, on Westbourne Park Road in West London. Clustered around tables throughout the room are pretty girls giggling over their drinks, almost as if they had been placed as delicately as the art on the walls (old advertising posters, photographs of prize-winning cows). Yet these of course are just customers who have bought into the artifice that Tom created a couple of decades back when he opened the place.
With a fondness for the institution that is the British pub, and sad to see so many closing, he conceived the Cow. ‘I wanted to pick the best elements of the tradition of the pub and put them in one place,’ he says, dressed in preppy jeans, shirt, jumper and tie. ‘I wanted a room that was cosy, almost womb-like. A warm interior with a log fire, dark wood, red lino floor and Anaglypta [that Victorian-style textured wall-covering] on the ceiling.’
The Cow opened in 1995 and, says Tom, ‘The thing I’m most proud of is that it was one of the first gastropubs.’ Whereas most were offering a Mediterranean-oriented menu in establishments bought cheaply with little money spent on the décor, the Cow was carefully designed and the menu firmly British. ‘I opened it at a time when I was firmly thinking chains bad, thumbs down. Unique, personal, individual, more artisan-type place, good.’
This wry knack of understanding what people want before they even know it is a classic Conran trait. After all, Tom’s father, Sir Terence, is widely credited with having shaped the way many of us eat and live with his work in retail, design and restaurants. Ironically, it was while his father was creating large, open-plan, cathedral-type restaurants such as Quaglino’s and Mezzo that Tom was engaging in more low-key hangouts.
‘I did choose quite specifically to do something that he wasn’t involved with,’ says Tom. ‘And I was following my mother [Caroline, Terence’s third wife, who was cookery editor of the Sunday Times]. But as I started to open my businesses he started unfolding his empire. It was as if he ran the British Empire and I was the mayor of Casterbridge.’
Yet Tom’s smaller empire, which has grown to four establishments in Notting Hill, has never seen a restaurant shut, and he is the sole owner of the business. ‘My dad lent me £130,000 to open the Cow and I paid him back within a year,’ he says. ‘But we are not in competition. I’ve considered our different approaches and I encourage myself that I’m still going and I’m still 100 per cent supportive and proud of his achievements.’
Illustration by Rebecca Buckland
OF HIS OWN places — there’s Tom’s Deli and Lucky Seven — it’s his Mexican joint, Crazy Homies, that’s given rise to his latest wheeze. Having opened one of the only tequila lounges in Europe, Chamucos Clubhouse in the basement of Crazy Homies, he’s started to import bottles of the stuff himself.
‘Tequila gives you this feeling of positive energy,’ he muses, calling for another Guinness. ‘It’s something in the agave plant. I know it can have a dramatic effect, but there’s good drama and bad drama. The number one rule with tequila is only drink 100 per cent agave. The number two rule is not to mix it with anything else. Follow those two rules and you’ll be fine.’
Of the shocking hangovers the stuff can give you, Tom is dismissive. ‘Follow my rules and you’ll only have positive drama and you won’t get a hangover. Really, no really, it’s true.’ He maintains that there are days during his forays to Mexico, to the town of Tequila itself, when he drinks tequila from 11am to midnight and never gets a hangover.
The brand he is distributing is a super-premium tequila called Chamucos (he liked it so much he bought a few thousand bottles and named a bar after it). There are three kinds — one unaged, one rested and one barrel-aged — and, says the blurb, ‘Classical music is played during distillation, overseen solely by women by virtue of their natural sensitivity.’ No doubt the women are employed to counter the actual name of the product, which translates as devil or demon. This push-me-pull-you sin versus virtue tipple is then flowed into hand-blown bottles.
The concept and the flavour tickle Tom. ‘I just want to educate people a little,’ he says with a twinkle in his eye — his idea of education, perhaps, harking back to the days of his teens when he found the family home in Regent’s Park taken over by the trendy music and art crowd that were part of the entourage of his older brothers, Jasper and Sebastian. I may have played the Clash in my bedroom at home in my teens, but coming home for the holidays Tom Conran found that the band’s lead singer Joe Strummer was living in his bedroom.
Avoiding university after Marlborough and a London crammer called MPW, Tom trained as a chef before opening his own place with that loan from his father. ‘I never borrowed from him again,’ he says proudly as he orders another Guinness. I leave clutching my bottle of tequila and looking forward to testing his no-hangover theory.
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