Vanilla makes vegetarianism the new Black

By Liz O’Keefe, 27th February 2015

Vanilla Black co-owner and head chef, Andrew Dargue, speaks exclusively to Produce Business UK about heading up the vegetarian revolution and making fruit and veg the stars of the show

Tucked away in the winding streets of London’s Chancery Lane is a high-end, fine-dining Michelin-recommended restaurant called Vanilla Black, which just happens to be vegetarian.

Andrew Dargue and his co-owner and partner Donna Conroy stand out in many ways. For a start, they opened a vegetarian restaurant despite the fact that neither are actually vegetarian. More quirkily still, when guests walk into Vanilla Black, it feels as though you are being welcomed into the couple’s home – albeit a very gentrified home with 45 places set for dinner that wouldn’t be out of place on a Sherlock Holmes set.

Front-of-house staff and chefs mill around adding to the buzz that the restaurant’s innovative food has created over the last 10 years and they clearly share Dargue and nurse-turned-front-of-house-manager Conroy’s passion for the business.

But it wasn’t always like this. Vanilla Black’s message is progressive: it satisfies a meat eater’s palate without the need for any meat or fish and prides itself on omitting lentil bakes, vegetable lasagne or any other veggie clichés.

Establishing a customer base, that understands the restaurant’s ethos and, more to the point, one that wanted it, was tough, however. The restaurant also relocated to London just about around the time the banks started to fail, back in 2008, moving south from its original home in York, where it opened to “disappointed hippies” in 2005.

“One blogger wrote that he gave the place six weeks,” Dargue reveals. “And he had a point. We would go three days without a soul walking through the door to eat.”

Sitting in a temporary office in the basement of the Took’s Court property amid an extension and reshuffle that will create further auxiliary space and five extra covers in the restaurant, it’s hard to believe the start was rocky. Today’s outlook is certainly in stark contrast to when the owners installed a curtain across half of the seating area so it didn’t appear so empty, reflects Dargue.

“We came in aiming too high at first. In York we pushed the boundaries. But it worked: we once had a man walk out because he couldn’t get his head round having a Savoury Bakewell Tart on the menu. But in general, we managed to get the right clientele.

“In London, no one knew of us and what we were trying to do, until when we were faced with handing the keys in, we decided to make the menu less ‘out there’ for some and had the opportunity to work with a good PR company, which kindly let us pay what we could afford.”

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