Sam Hart revolutionised eating out with the tiny, no-reservations, tapas restaurants, Barrafina. Now he’s bringing a taste of Spain to Coal Drops Yard with his biggest venture yet, as Simon Mills discovers…
Sam Hart’s London HQ is a little office above Quo Vadis, the Soho club and speakeasy which is the jewel in the crown of his company’s restaurant portfolio. Within seven minutes walk of three branches of Barrafina, the tapas chain he developed with younger sibling Eddie, it’s easy for him to keep an eye on goings-on at the Dean Street, Adelaide Street, and Drury Lane restaurants.
The rooftop garret is also the blue-plaque adorned former residence of Karl Marx. When the German-born philosopher and revolutionary socialist lived here in the 1850s, he would enjoy frequent visits to the British Library to work on his Das Kapital masterpiece and often extend bookish days with evening pub crawls past the newly built warehouses and brick arches of Regent’s Canal with his pal Frederick Engels.
Over a century and a half later, Hart, dressed in a blue suit of the kind of bespoke finery that would, no doubt, appall the father of modern communism, is making a similar, career-defining journey to King’s Cross. With business partner Crispin Somerville and youngest brother James (Eddie Hart is now living in Majorca and about to open his own Palma restaurant, “and prove that, yes, he can actually sell tapas to the Spanish,” quips Sam), the Hart group is poised to open three new eateries at Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross’ latest shopping and dining district. The no-bookings, egalitarian, Euro-Latino gastrodrome beneath Thomas Heatherwick’s magnificent undulating roof will be home to a two-floor branch of Barrafina (the biggest one yet with 34 seats at the bar, a 60 cover terrace and a 20 cover private dining area) an N1 outpost of the Harts’ El Pastor taco bar, and a new wine bar and diner called The Drop with 55 covers inside and 24 more on its terrace.
Why “The Drop”? The name acknowledges not just the Coal Drops Yard location but also refers to a vintner’s term for a small measure of wine. “And that crescendoing moment in a big house music tune when the beat ‘drops’ and the dance floor goes completely mad,” adds Sam. “Before its huge redevelopment programme began we used to come to King’s Cross to go clubbing at places like Bagleys and The Cross. So the name is a nod back to our old debauched, hedonistic past.”
“It’s a grand extravaganza and nothing like we’ve ever done before”
Cuisine at The Drop will be English-inspired. The atmosphere in its cellar and al fresco premises, “positively Burgundian”, says Sam, with space outside also hosting an oyster cart. Barrafina’s Angel Zapata Martin will expand his role as executive chef. “Suddenly, we are doubling the size of business,” says Sam. “It’s a grand extravaganza and nothing like we’ve ever done before.”
But this isn’t, Sam is at pains to say, the beginning of a homogenised roll-out of the Michelin-starred Barrafina ethos because, he says, “each one has been slightly different. Dean Street is for the arty, more bohemian types. Adelaide Street is slightly more suity and Drury Lane is for the theatre crowd and the tourists.” And King’s Cross? The mix of Central Saint Martins students, international visitors using the Eurostar facilities, adjacent tech, media and young businesses (hip, cycling apparel maker Rapha is a neighbour and Google’s new European HQ on King’s Boulevard is currently under construction) will provide a diverse mix and industrious hive of next-generation clientele.
The unique concept and creative customer reach of the Coal Drops Yard prompted Hart to seek investment via the unconventional but very modern method of crowd-funding. A targeted £750,000 will be raised via crowdcube.com, the UK based site which has enjoyed recent success in finding £2million for the Cotswolds Distillery and £1.2million for the East London Liquor Company. Potential funders in the Harts’ King’s Cross venture are offered a range of rewards packages that start with the occasional, complimentary glass of wine, extending to life-long memberships of the Quo Vadis club. A £50,000 pledge will buy you the opportunity to accompany the team on Research and Development excursions to Spain (and beyond) drinking and dining with the Hart team to sound out new dining concepts in the best possible style.
“It’s actually been an amazing and compelling way of engaging with the audience,” says Hart. “Instead of just thinking that you have a thousand people investing money in your business, you also start to consider them as ambassadors, who feel an affinity with what you are doing, who are getting on board with it and contributing to its success.”
It’s no surprise that so many people want to invest in affairs of the Hart’s. Driven by a passion for authentic but modern food and drink, a proclivity for seat-of-the-pants risk-taking and an almost OCD level of attention to detail, the Harts’ journey to critical accolades, Michelin stars and nightly queues around the block can be told in a whirl of sunshine lunches, late nights and good times.
Sam, Eddie, and James Hart grew up in Rutland where their interior designer mother and investment banker father-turned-hotelier run the Michelin starred Hambleton Hall. Summers were spent in the Hart family’s Mallorcan holiday home eating gambas de Sóller and frit Mallorquin.
After leaving Eton, Sam read Economics at Manchester University, bagging a job at a foreign exchange brokerage in Mexico City on his graduation. Still only 22 years old, he quickly fell in love with the place (especially its delicious tacos al pastor food culture), but out of favour with finance and office work. Instead, with brother Eddie, he opened the super hip El Colmillo (The Fang) nightclub in the city’s Juárez district, attracting visiting Hollywood celebrities and local bigwigs (the Mexican president’s son was once told by Sam and Eddie that, no, he wasn’t allowed to bring guns on to the premises). During their four-year tenure in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Sam was the only person from the team who didn’t get robbed. “But my wife did get kidnapped. You are in a taxi and they lock the doors and threaten you with a gun and don’t let you out until you give them what they want — watch, money, jewellery. Happens all the time,” Sam assures me.
Back in the comparative safety of a less trigger-happy England, the Hart brothers signed up Basque-born chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho and launched Fino, their first Spanish “narrow bar” eaterie, serving up Segovian roast suckling pig and Pyrenean milk fed lamb to grateful Fitzrovians. It was 2003.
“Torrijas, empanadas and para picar all washed down with chilled Iberian wines”
On a roll now, they bought the lease for Soho landmark, Quo Vadis, from previous owners Marco Pierre White and his business partner Damien Hirst, debuting their first-come-first-served, stools-at-the-bar Barrafina concept (inspired by their favourite Cal Pep restaurant in Barcelona) on Frith Street [now closed.] The combination of a strict, no reservations rule, shared dishes of torrijas, empanadas’ and para picar all washed down with chilled Iberian wines and fine sherries from Cadiz, proved an instant and massive hit for Sam and Eddie.
Eleven years and many, many bottles of Cava later, the Harts’ are now joined at Coal Drops Yard by new partner Crispin Somerville, who first worked with the team back in the El Colmillo days in Mexico and helped open the Tortilleria El Pastor at Borough Market and Bermondsey. With a CV that takes in comedy acting (he had a walk-on part in Chris Morris’ The Day Today), VJ-ing for MTV, book publishing and a record company start-up, he is the perfect foil for James Hart, 36, who joined the family business two years ago after a ten year stint as a City broker.
The 2.0 team was first alerted to the potential of the King’s Cross site a decade ago. “But to be honest, we didn’t even bother going to see it,” laughs Sam. “We just thought, ‘King’s Cross? Who will ever want to go there?’ It seemed ridiculous. Turns out, we were rather short sighted… and very, very wrong.”
A visit to the already rapidly transforming Coal Drops Yard and a look at the blueprints for Heatherwick’s spectacular, sweeping steel roof back in 2016 changed the Harts’ minds. “It was a bit of a personal decision, really. If you counted the units of alcohol that I drank in a week, 99 percent of them would be wine. So when we discovered these beautiful old Victorian arches [at Coal Drops Yard] that seemed to be just crying out for drinking Rioja and Albariño in them… well… ”
Think of this experience as the gently hedonistic, oenophilic equivalent of the euphoric moment a house music classic reaches its climatic, “drop” moment. “And suddenly,” says Sam with a smile, “we were completely sold on King’s Cross.”
This article first appeared in the summer 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.