Currently, the two best restaurants on Merseyside have a couple of curious things in common. Firstly, they’re both on the Wirral. Secondly, and perhaps most telling of all, neither of them have ever employed the services of a PR agency in their lives.
SevenStreets can’t help but smile, broadly, at this. For it shines a rather glaring, and all too unflattering light on the ever-increasing roll the city’s flotilla of PR agencies plays in the city’s nighttime manoeuvres.
In the week that Rob Guttman (the man who brought us Dinomat, Zeligs, Raven and other ‘Big Launches’) declares himself personally bankrupt, and SevenStreets enjoys the best and the worst meals we’ve had on Merseyside for quite some time, maybe it’s time to ask a simple question:
Does a good restaurant need a PR agency?
Certainly if you take Merseyside’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Oxton’s Fraiche, and The Good Food Guide’s ‘Best New Restaurant in the UK’, Irby’s Da Piero -pic above-, it would appear not: do it right, and you don’t need to pay anyone to promote you.
Both some distance from the hype of downtown Liverpool’s frothy restaurant openings – Fraiche and Da Piero are booked solid at the weekend until the summer. Their PR? Word of mouth and secret diners from established (and trustworthy) guides. No free lunches, no tacit understandings that today’s glazed belly pork is tomorrow’s glowing review.
“Talk is cheap,” Michelin-starred Marc Wilkinson and Fraiche chef-patron (pic r) tells SevenStreets. “It’s what you put on your plates that counts. We’re in Oxton, so it was always going to be difficult to get noticed, and to get press here,” he says, “but from day one, I made a decision to spend every penny I had on the restaurant. I’ve seen too many bad restaurants employ PR to drum up exposure in the press, only to close down a couple of years later.”
The reason? “Running a restaurant is hard work,” Wilkinson says, “and you should focus on what you do best: the food, and the service, and leave the rest to your customers, not PR machines.”
“Things are still tough on Merseyside. There’s not a lot of money going around,” he says, “So why waste any of it on press releases when you could spend it training your waiting staff?”
Reputation takes time. It takes commitment, passion and patience: elements Wilkinson displays at every sitting of his thrilling Signature tasting menu.
Currently, every new restaurant launch, every new menu, every new themed Grand National cocktail in Liverpool city centre’s dining scene is accompanied with a side order of press releases, a flurry of journalists invited to sit around and write for their supper, and an amuse buche of fragrant young PR types cooing gently over your tempura prawn fingers.
It works – to a point. Journalists aren’t paid much. We need feeding up. We’ve been invited to a few of these bun fights ourselves. But unlike the Kobe beef, we don’t need our backsides personally massaged by media studies graduates to tell us whether something’s worth swallowing.
The restaurant PR world operates in a parallel universe. And it’s as substantial as the foams that pass for flavour in so many of our city’s disappointing new foodie openings. After the press campaign is over, and the PR’s work is done, all too often the restaurant’s offer sinks as flat as yesterday’s souffle. Attentive service? Reliable standards? The highest quality ingredients? Like Basil Fawlty’s Duck a’la orange, er, that’s off, sorry.
For Da Piero’s Dawn Di Bella, the recipe for success is as simple as it is gruelling.
“You can do as much singing and dancing as you want,” she says, “but ultimately, you have to be honest with your prices, stick to your guns, work hard, and keep whatever budget, and energy, you’ve got for your restaurant. I even wash all our own linen and napkins, I just can’t trust anyone else to do it as good as I would!”
Tiring and time consuming? Absolutely. But it’s an attention to detail that’s paid off. SevenStreets is just the latest convert in Da Piero’s ever-growing legion of fans.
Da Piero’s honest, perfectly seasoned, sensational Sicilian cooking is streets ahead of anything within a day’s drive of here (Fraiche aside – although the establishments offer an experience that’s worlds apart, menu-wise). And the word is well and truly out, after their ‘Best New Entry in the UK’ status in last year’s Good Food Guide.
“It was very, very word of mouth,” Di Bella says, “The guide took a recommendation from customers and sent a secret diner to assess us. We’ve still got no idea who it was, but we’re very grateful. We had someone phoning up saying they couldn’t believe we were in Irby. And they were from Pensby!”
The resultant glowing write up was swiftly followed by a Michelin recommendation, a fawning review in The Guardian (‘If they ever did brick up the Mersey tunnel, you’d want to be on the side that has Da Piero’), and interviews in foodie mags Delicious and (next month) Olive – with chef Piero, Dawn’s partner, whipping up his favourite Italian desserts for the well-respected periodical.
“It’s lovely to be appreciated,” Di Bella says. “As a family, we were determined to work hard at our business, and hope that good, real cooking would be the way to get noticed, just as it is in Italy.”
It worked. Da Piero’s a perfect example of the sort of dependable, passionately run bistro that you can fall into every few hundred metres over there. Tell a Sicilian restaurateur the only way to succeed is to engage in a multi-platform press campaign and you’ll be sleeping with the fishes, not eating them with a seasonal side salad.
Da Piero’s (free range, rose) Veal ossobuco – chef Piero’s mother’s recipe, of course - its Aubergine bake and its Carne condita alla Siciliana – marinated beef in the Sicilian style, reserve every ounce of their fanfare to the plate, not the press release. They’re faultless. And Piero’s Linguine al Limone – simply linguine with lemon sauce, is a text-book lesson in the less is more school of great Italian cooking. The result? Irby is on the map. Cook and they will come.
Compare this to Jamie’s Italian – our local press were all over him like the skin of a supermarket custard, but they forgot to mention that his salami slices were so thin Calvin Harris could use them as sunglasses lenses, and the service so insipid we’re surprised Saint Jamie hasn’t launched a Channel 4 crusade to release his staff from their misery.
Marco Pierre White’s next, with his Hotel Indigo steakhouse. Just wait to see how sycophantic we’ll be over him: the man who – let’s not forget – is currently employed promoting Bernard Matthews Farms. And we know how great their animal husbandry is. We’ve already fallen for it: the Echo trotting out a press release about Pierre White’s ‘X Factor-style’ auditions for chefs. Ah, the smell of a good story. Still, it’s comforting to know these journalists were hooked, one by one, in the traditional pole and line PR method.
Meanwhile, Di Bella’s son, Alan, calmly learns his trade, Sous Chef to dad Piero’s assured and sublime menu of Sicilian-inspired cooking. At the end of the meal, he pops out, with dad, to shake our hands. Awkward? Not a bit of it. We’d have happily hugged them both. “He’s only 19, but he’s fabulous with fish…” beams his mum.
That’s the other sort of PR we’re happy to be swayed by. A proud mum’s. Da Piero is that kind of place, and we’re delighted to spread the word.
Oh, the worst meal we had? We really couldn’t say. But the merchandise was pukka.
Da Piero, Mill Hill Road, Irby
Friache, Rose Mount, Oxton