D&D – Design & Dining
D&D is a restaurant company like no other, where every restaurant has its own identity and is situated in a spectacular building. It’s fair to say D&D is one of the leading British high-end restaurant groups, with 42 restaurants, a hotel, a turnover of £150 million and over 2,200 staff.
Their restaurants are some of the most stylish venues in London, and they have also opened in Leeds, Manchester as well as Paris and New York. Yet, despite being a business that has made an undeniable impact on the restaurant world, an untrained eye might not recognise a D&D restaurant at first glance.
We’re not a chain,” says Des Gunewardena, co-founder of the company and one of the Ds in D&D, the other being David Loewi. “All our venues are individual with bespoke concepts, ranging from £20-a-head cafes to £100-a-head restaurants to £300-a-night hotels.”
Leading by Design
Having the professionalism of a large company, but without the uniformity of a restaurant chain, is part of the unique D&D experience. This, combined with its design-led philosophy, is what most defines D&D.
“People often say our restaurants are very beautiful rooms. We’ve won a lot of awards for design,” Gunewardena says. “The German Gymnasium was judged the most beautiful new restaurant opening in the world at the Restaurant Bar and Design Awards 2015.”
Another of D&D’s restaurants with a famous interior is Quaglino’s, a restaurant that under a number of ownerships has been open since 1929.
“We’re celebrating its 90th birthday on Wednesday,” Gunewardena says proudly. “It was the first public restaurant that the Queen ever dined at.”
Then there’s Bluebird in Chelsea which is a hotspot for the celebrities that live in that area, and 100 Wardour Street, a restaurant and live music venue which is located at what was the originally the Marquee Club in Soho.
Gunewardena reflects, “Our restaurants have been part of the London scene for many years, but our USP is that we combine owning landmark venues with being serious restaurateurs. We’re not just about looking good and attracting the right crowd. We have sommeliers, Michelin starred chefs and some of the best front of house teams in the business.”
All D&D’s venues are selected and developed according to what Gunewardena calls its “design-led” philosophy.
“We like to take interesting buildings. German Gymnasium is a good example of that,” Gunewardena says. “It’s a building with a lot of history. It was originally a gymnasium. Quaglino’s was a famous restaurant in the 1930s which became a hotel ballroom. In New York, we took a space underneath the 59th Street bridge. So, what I mean by design-led is we take really interesting, spectacular spaces and work with designers to bring them alive.”
D&D does not just launch great restaurant concepts, however. Talking to Gunewardena it is clear the importance he places on making sure D&D’s restaurants are not just the hot new thing but stay fresh for decades to come.
“A lot of restaurant groups that were successful a few years ago have run into problems,” he says. “One of the big challenges is how to continue to be successful, not just with
new projects but also by remaining relevant and popular in existing venues.”
Some of D&D’s venues have been open for 15 or 20 years. When we talk to Gunewardena he’s sitting in Sartoria, an Italian restaurant which opened in 1998. In order to remain successful D&D is constantly innovating.
“That doesn’t mean changing the restaurant concept every few years. It means making sure the food, wine and service are excellent all the time. It’s not a case of having a nice concept and letting the managers run the place, collecting the dividends at the end of the year” Gunewardena says. “It’s an ongoing process of management and dialogue with our teams.”
Keeping Things Fresh
As well as keeping their restaurants successful, D&D is also looking for new territories to do business, and for the last three years, they have been looking to expand their locations outside London.
“Three years ago, we had a restaurant in Paris, one in New York and we had a couple of restaurants in Leeds, but 90% of our business was in London,” Gunewardena tells us. “We wanted to broaden our business geographically. At that time we were approached by some developers in New York who were in London promoting a development called Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan. It would be a huge mixed-use development with residential, office, cultural attractions as well as shops and restaurants.”
The result of that meeting was the opening of two restaurants in Manhattan – Queensyard at Hudson Yards and Bluebird at Columbus Circle. Bluebird was based on D&D’s Chelsea venue, with a trans-Atlantic twist. Both were ventures that came with some new, and unexpected challenges.
“The biggest challenge of opening overseas is that you don’t know the market as well as the market you have been operating in for years. We know London very, very well but even though we’d acquired a business in New York before, we ourselves as D&D had never opened a restaurant there,” Gunewardena says. “It was a challenge to evolve Bluebird Chelsea into something that works for New Yorkers. In terms of food, cocktails, wines, people’s eating out habits in London and New York are very different.”
In the last three years, the company has opened two restaurants in New York, a Japanese restaurant, Issho, a bar, East 59th, in Leeds, and a rooftop restaurant in Manchester called 20 Stories.
“Today our revenues are 75% London and 25% overseas and the rest of the UK,” Gunewardena says.
D&D’s expansion goes beyond launching new restaurants, or even hotels. The company is looking at completely new business models, such as Alexander & Björck, the company’s first outside events business that D&D launched in partnership with entrepreneur Lena Björck. Then there’s Workroom, a new concept D&D is trialling across several restaurants.
“The idea of Workroom was to use spaces that generally lay empty in the mornings and afternoons as workplaces for people who prefer to work in public spaces rather than offices,” explains Gunewardena. “We’re trialling that at the moment, and if it’s successful we’ll expand it. It’s a response to the huge growth in coworking. I myself hardly ever go into my office now. I take calls and have meetings in our restaurants. I think that’s the way a lot of people are working these days. It’s as a response to that trend that we set up Workroom, in collaboration with entrepreneur Dominika Sadowska.”
In a business world where too many people are already sick of working in Starbucks, it is a concept with a definite appeal. We look forward to seeing what D&D serve up next.