Pitt the elder: Why Pitt Cue is growing up

By Stefan Chomka

- Last updated on GMT

Pitt Cue co-founder Tom Adams
Pitt Cue co-founder Tom Adams

Related tags Barbecue

On a gloomy January in 2012 the net curtains of Pitt Cue in Soho twitched for the first time as Tom Adams and Jamie Berger’s barbecue efforts finally became a permanent fixture of the London restaurant scene.

Until then, the pair had sent Londoners into something of a meat-fuelled trance on the South Bank with their food truck, which had queues of hungry diners snaking under Hungerfood Bridge throughout the summer of 2011, but on the cobbled stones of Newburgh Street they had finally swapped the metal truck for bricks and mortar.

Four years on and the pair, along with Pitt Cue’s original backers Simon Anderson and grill aficionado Richard Turner, are on the move again. The Newburgh Street site is no more, having closed mid last month, and a fresh iteration of the restaurant is soon to open in Devonshire Square in Spitalfields. And there’s going to be a few surprises with the second coming.

Room to grow

Pitt Cue’s choice of new location in Devonshire Square – a relatively quite enclave of restaurants and offices just off Broadgate – might come as a surprise for some, given the bustling Soho location it has occupied until now. Yet the fact that it is moving from its original site is unlikely to raise too many eyebrows considering the constraints it put on the restaurant. With seating for just 18 people in the downstairs dining room and a further 8 stools upstairs in the bar, there was hardly room for Adams and his kitchen team to swing a brisket.

“There were size issues associated with the restaurant that the guests never realised,” says Berger. “We were starved of things as basic as storage space, which meant we couldn’t take advantage of economies of scale with deliveries and it was very difficult to balance orders. We were constantly running out of things.” 

The kitchen was so small at Newburgh Street, in fact, that the dining room was used between lunch and dinner services as a prep area and things such as drop down shelves had to be installed to make space during service.

“It was a nice old building,” adds Berger. “But like many nice old buildings it was not used to having 1,000 covers a week pushed through it. We were patching it up as we went along. The site was very rickety but that was also part of its charm. There is no way that we can be too rude about the place, though. Having that site to move into at that stage when we had just come off the South Bank was incredible. It has always been difficult to get a site in London, but to get one in a prime central Soho location in a cobbled street that supports independent businesses was amazing. It was the perfect environment for the restaurant."

Devonshire Square might have none of the quirks of Soho – the area is well presented yet unremarkable – but it offers the space that Pitt Cue needs to realise its full potential.

Cue the move: Simon Anderson, Tom Adams, Richard Turner and Jamie Berger are relocating to Spitalfields

The new site will have 80-100 covers – with an additional 40 outside – and an open kitchen with a whopping US-made bespoke grill as its centrepiece. Built and shipped across from Michigan, the grill cost $89,000 (£61,000) and will require some training, admits Turner, although he says that the team has had “four years of practice with live fire cooking” and should be able to handle it. “It’s a serious bit of engineering. It has that real wow factor for chefs and I’m sure diners will feel the same way about it too.”

It’s a move that shows an intent to make more money from the restaurant, but the team can hardly be accused of being greedy, or even particularly financially motivated. While other barbecue restaurants have ridden on Pitt Cue’s coat tails in the four years since its inception, the team has yet to really capitalise on the movement it started.

“We have looked at many sites [in the past few years] and there have been many dropped stitches in the tapestry of the company,” says Berger. “Ultimately there are two routes you can go down – open four restaurants in two years or wait four years and open another. We have taken it slower and have developed talent rather than take the corporate dollar.”

Moving the menu beyond barbecue’s shackles

With a grill and rotisserie practically the size of the former Pitt Cue kitchen, not to mention the large subterranean prep kitchen, cold store and butchery area, Adams and Pitt Cue head chef Oscar Holgado will finally be able to unshackle themselves from the restraints of  the original site and create a more ambitious and larger menu.

As well as serving a wider variety of different cuts of meat, the restaurant will at times have fish on the menu alongside dishes such as whole stuffed pigs trotters and feature many more vegetable dishes. It will also have a greater focus on breads, with the restaurant continuing to make all of its bread and butter on site.

“We’re not pushing to open a completely new thing in terms of food, but we will now have the space to play around more and cook things that we just didn’t have the space for in Soho,” says Adams.

“The only reason we didn’t serve fish there was because there was only space for two fridges - one for meat and one for dairy. It would have been illegal for us to serve fish. But we did it when we had the van, so it’s not completely new.”

That said, people visiting the second incarnation of Pitt Cue will be in for a shock if they expect the US-style barbecue that was the mainstay of its van offer and the food at the restaurant during its early days. While the word ‘cue’ in the name alludes to it having a barbecue element (the Pitt bit comes from the town of the same name near Winchester where Adams grew up) the new restaurant will actively distance itself from the US-style barbecue joints that have sprung up across the capital – partly in response to the trend for barbecue that the original Pitt Cue reignited. This even means that the new Pitt Cue will no longer serve pulled pork, arguably its most iconic menu item.

“We will ditch it,” says Adams. “When you make anything every single day for four years you’re going to get sick of it. Everyone has had their fill of it.” Diners afraid that they may have had their last Pitt Cue pulled pork bun shouldn’t squeal quite yet though. “The van is still in hibernation so it might make a reappearance there at some point,” he adds. “We are not banishing it entirely from the realm of the restaurant.”

The side-step away from US barbecue isn’t exactly new for Pitt Cue: its most recent menu at Soho was a far cry from the US stalwarts of ribs, pulled pork and brisket churned out at the truck, with featherblade steak, grilled lamb rump, lamb heart and pig’s head scrumpet all on offer.

Thrill of the grill: the £60,000 beats that will power the new Pitt Cue

“We’ve always back pedalled from any type of classification, especially the awfully termed dude and dirty food. Barbecue is yet another restrictive label, and is one that has a rather bizarre turf war – one place in Louisiana will say their barbecue is better than the next place and  then you go down the street and someone says everything they told you there was absolute rubbish and their’s is the best,” says Berger. “Why open yourself up to these petty things? By not labelling ourselves we can go where the ingredients take us.”

“It’s not a barbecue restaurant but barbecue is still a weapon in the arsenal,” adds Turner. “We have a smoker and a grill, but it will be far away from the recent US-style openings. If anything it’s a meat restaurant. No barbecue restaurant has the passion for the growing and finishing of the animals it cooks as we do. That’s what really differentiates us from a lot of the places out there.”

A grown up restaurant
It might seem odd for a restaurant to try to step away from the very thing for which it is renowned, but the new Pitt Cue is about evolution rather than being more of the same. In the four years since the first restaurant opened, the London restaurant scene has embraced a number of US-style barbecue concepts and to relaunch into this now crowded area didn’t seem the Pitt Cue way.

“Because it’s so different it could take a lot of people by surprise,” admits Anderson. “It’s a different beast and we hope it will create a new following.”

“It can never be the same [as the original], that’s the very nature of evolution,” adds Turner.

Such progression will mean the new Pitt Cue is very much a more grown up version of the  original, one that shares features of more traditional restaurants. So, for example, despite its Soho place being at the vanguard of the no reservation movement, diners at Devonshire Square will be able to book a table. The dining room will be roughly split in two, with tables nearest the open kitchen bookable while those closest the bar set aside for walk-ins.

“In the life curve of a restaurant you need to move away from no reservations,” says Berger. “A non-reservation restaurant is dictated by the space. It was not possible at Newburgh Street, we would have had to reduce the number of covers we were able to serve at any one session to make allowances for no shows, lateness and people staying longer than expected. We are paying back the loyalty of the guests who have come and stood in the rain and the cold to eat with us in the past.

Carry on carnivore: the dishes and presentation may be changing, but meat will remain the star of the show

“The nicest way to do a restaurant is to have the opportunity to do both. There is a whole sector of the dining public for whom a non-reservation restaurant is anathema. Anyway, we’d probably struggle as a nonreservation restaurant at lunchtime in EC2. People around here need to know they can be in and out at lunch.”

Pitt Cue’s drinks list is also growing up. The new restaurant will embrace wine for the first time, stocking in the region of 50 bins. “Wine at Newburgh Street was essentially a garnish used in cocktails,” says Berger. “We had one red and one white but they weren’t on a list. At Devonshire Square we will have the ability to have a grown up, quirky list in keeping with what we do.”

The pickleback – a shot of whiskey chased by a shot of pickle brine, which Pitt Cue popularised in the UK when it launched – has also been confined to history. “We want to get away from people shooting spirits – sipping is what it’s all about,” says Berger. If a customer really wants a shot the restaurant will serve it – “that’s the rules of the industry” says Turner – but it won’t be encouraging them.

What it will be encouraging, aside from sipping interesting American whiskeys, is beer drinking. In what looks likely to be a masterstroke, it will brew its own beers on site. Five or six different beers will be produced, with brew tanks on show behind the bar. The selection will include a lager, best bitter, IPA and porter, as well as, potentially, a bourbon beer. 

“We want to create beers that are actually drinkable, which is sadly not the trend at the moment,” says Anderson. “A lot of the [craft] beers served in restaurants are over-flavoured and don’t complement food very well; they aren’t session beers. It’s the last part of the puzzle that we wanted control over. Now we’ve got wines and beer, we’ve closed off the circle.”

The new restaurant won’t be backing down on its no vodka or gin policy, however. “We’re not becoming a completely different entity,” says Berger.

One thing customers might not mind seeing the back of is the space itself. The new restaurant will have a warehouse-meets-farmhouse design in reference to the area’s  history as being the location for the East India Company as well as its Newburgh and food truck roots, with exposed brickwork and a lot of wood and metal on show. More than that, though, it will be a place in which customers might want to linger. This is not something that could be said about the original Pitt Cue which, although taking a free-range approach to its meat, had a more battery-farmed feel about its crowds.

“Newburgh Street was a horrible place to eat,” admits Adams. “It was tiny, cramped, sweaty and unpleasant. I didn’t eat there. The new place will be a much better restaurant to eat in.”

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