Robin Gill on going back to basics in Brixton

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Robin Gill on his Brixton wine bar Bottle & Rye

Related tags Robin Gill Sarah Gill Chefs Coronavirus Casual dining Bar Bottle & Rye Maria G’s

The high profile chef-restaurateur has opened a small yet perfectly formed natural wine bar in Brixton Village that is an ode to the neighbourhood bistros of Paris.

Is it nice to be doing something that's on a smaller scale to your other places?
It's been really great. There's something lovely about working in a smaller space. There’s an intimacy to it, and I like that everyone has to do a bit of everything. The kitchen is setup in such a way that the KP needs to help with the cooking as well as do the washing up. It's much easier to manage, too. We only have 26-covers plus a few tables outside.

What is the inspiration behind Bottle & Rye? 
It is based on those little Parisian bistros that change throughout the day. Proper neighbourhood places run by just a few staff. Sarah (Gill’s wife) and I spend a lot of time in Paris. We’ve also taken inspiration from the natural wine bar scene there.

Why Brixton?
Sarah and I have lived in Brixton for a long time, since before we opened The Dairy, in fact. We were actually looking to open The Dairy in Brixton. We bumped into the person that ended up giving us the lease while looking at sites in Brixton Village. With Bottle & Rye I feel like we've come full circle. I love Brixton's energy. To be completely honest I prefer it to Clapham in many ways. 

It sounds like quite a personal project for you both... 
It is. It’s made even more so because it’s run by a small team of people we know very well. Lewis (Wright, Bottle & Rye’s GM) has worked with us since the early days of the The Dairy and we’ve known Ben Hughes-Gage (Bottle & Rye's head chef) for a while too.

Is the wine list exclusively natural? 
Yes pretty much. With a venue of this sort of size we can afford to be bolder and a bit more niche. At Darby's - for example - we have a handful of natural wines that I like but we'd never go full-on natural, it just wouldn't work. We were introduced to natural wines in the early days of The Dairy by Damiano Fiamma (the founder of Tutto Wines) and everyone is now obsessed with them, not least Lewis. 

What was the brief for the food side of things at Bottle & Rye?
"No fucking kohlrabi". I wanted to step away from things that were Scandinavian in feel and be authentically French. There are a few twists but everything stems from something traditional you would see in a Parisian bistro. It's bold, we have sweetbreads and lamb tongue, and it's affordable too. Dishes on the current menu include barbecued baby artichokes with aioli; pig’s head brawn terrine with cornichons and sourdough; and flat iron steak with frites, Cashel Blue sauce and salad.

The kitchen is absolutely tiny... 
Yep. The maximum number of people we can have in there is two chefs and a KP. We're working closely with the other restaurants in the group, which all have a lot more space. The chefs will go over to Darby's (in Nine Elms) to do big jobs like making the brawn for the week and doing the butchery. Our bakery in (Rye By The Water in Brentford, West London) also helps us out with a lot of bespoke stuff. 

When did you first identify the site for Bottle & Rye? 
We first started talking to the landlord (Taylor McWilliams of Hondo Enterprises) about the site just ahead of the pandemic. We had the designs done and were all ready to go then Covid hit. Luckily there was something in our terms that allowed us to postpone the opening. We would have been open sooner after Covid but the price of all the building materials increased to such an extent we had to redo the business plan. 


Maria G's opened in the same week.​ How was that for the group?
Luckily we have a very strong team at Bottle & Rye that have worked with each other before and can just get on with it. If not for that it would have been really tough. But I would have much rather opened two months ago like we were supposed to but that's always the way in this business. Even a year ago I could see them both opening at the same time. 

How is Maria G's going?
Yep well. Aaron Potter (most recently at Clapham’s Trinity) is a great chef. He and I are in sync when it comes to creating dishes. We both get the brief completely. It's been a real joy actually.

The Maria G's website hints that there may be more of them... 
Potentially, yes. But I want to take a break from opening things. Two in the same week was never the plan and to be honest it feels like the industry is moving from one crisis to the next right now. I’m an optimist at heart. I always thought that there would not be further lockdowns and I also thought we’d be in a good position for staff following the pandemic but clearly that was not the case. And now we have the war and a cost-of-living crisis. 

Your last few restaurants have all been attached to residential developments in London neighbourhoods. How did that come about?
We were approached to open Darby's because the landlord had seen what we'd created down the road in Clapham. It was a very exciting project for us. We'd never had things like proper restaurant designers, branding teams, sound engineers and lighting specialists. It was an opportunity to step things up a bit and do things on a much bigger scale. Following the success of Darby's other property developers came knocking, and we've since launched Bermondsey Larder and now Maria G's. 

What are the terms on these sorts of projects?
All three have worked in roughly the same way. We take a lease but the developer pays for the fit out and there is a decent rent-free period. But it's not without its challenges and it is a bit of a gamble in that you never know whether these locations will take off. Darby's was tough at first. There was nobody there really, it was a building site. But things gradually got busier and busier, and now we have great transport links too. 

The business has grown a lot in recent years - has the structure changed in terms of who is at the top of it?
Not really. It's still myself Sarah and my sister-in-law, who is head of finance, running things. But what is changing is that I want to bring more of my key people into the business and give them real ownership. That's something we've already done for some members of the team, but we want to take a more structured approach to it.  

Do you find much time to cook these days? 
Yes! Lots of people think I don't cook anymore but I'm cooking in my restaurants all the time. I'm usually just covering - last night I worked a KP shift at Bottle & Rye, for example - and we've needed a lot of that recently. Cooking is where it all started. I still want to be in the kitchen, I don’t want to feel like the fat controller.

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