I don’t think I’d make a good restaurant critic. I love good food but have never had any desire to write about it. But it just so happens that a couple of months ago, my now favourite restaurant in London opened downstairs.
Until May the ground floor of the building next door was a car-mechanics garage. Some time in March a letter from Hackney council arrived asking if we had any objections to it turning into a restaurant. We had none. A few weeks into the refurbishment an old hand-painted sign was exposed; Barnes Motors it said, a rare beauty in a sea of Foxtons and Winkworth boards. I expected the restaurant people to paint over it or take it down. They didn’t. They just put up a modest black sign next to it with the name Primeur. I thought, I am going to like this place.
Primeur opened its doors in time for the glorious summer of 2014. The old industrial sliding doors are kept open to let the sun in. Its simple but considered interior stays true to the space’s past life. There is a lovely balance of function and form: big black tables are marked with white chalk slicing them into smaller sitting arrangements as per the reservations. Old-looking golden taps pop out of the walls for people to help themselves to water.
Confidence is always attractive and Primeur seems to have plenty; located on a residential street, they don’t serve coffee or sparkling water and they only take bookings in person. Perhaps I am being naïve but I have a feeling that Primeur didn’t open because of someone’s ambition to make money (though it’s full every evening so money is being made).
The duo behind Primeur are Jeremie Cometto, the restaurant manager, and David Gingell, the chef. Both have loads of experience in their respected fields but this is the first time they’ve gone out on their own. I was so impressed with their ability to get it so right that I wanted to know more – so I popped down to have a chat with Jeremie.
Did you consider other restaurant spaces or where you looking for something unconventional?
We didn’t want to be part of that high street where you blend in and suddenly become just another place. We weren’t actively looking, we just found this place and fell in love with it because the doors where so amazing and the place was so raw.
The ambience here is quite special – was that something you planned for?
We wanted our place to be convivial. We didn’t want to have lots of small tables for two or four because it really takes away from the atmosphere. Same goes for the taps on the wall: if you have a room full of people who are waited on you have only one level – people won’t get up, it’s very static. So we’re trying to engage people and let them do their own thing.
What’s with the face-to-face reservations?
It’s basically extending a little bit of privilege to the people that live around here. We want this room to be like the residents’ canteen.
Did you spend time thinking about your potential customers?
Nowadays restaurants are opened with an Excel sheet; you get a program to do demographic analysis, walking trade, etc. If you followed that system no one in their right mind would open here – it’s just against every rule in the book.
So it was quite brave?
We didn’t want to play the game of going to Shoreditch or Soho and we have nothing to prove to anyone anymore. We worked for the big boys, we’re not here to make a name for ourselves so that frees you in a way: suddenly these parameters don’t matter anymore.
So it’s like pure vision?
Yes, follow your heart and keep it simple. This is the most basic cooking equipment we’ve ever used; we don’t have menus, a telephone or email. People come in and say I love this new concept but we’ve just pared the restaurant down to what it used to be 200 years ago. There was no menu, people would come to a tavern and eat what was being cooked on the day. So its not new – it’s the most classic, most historical concept you can have.
Everything I’ve eaten here has been amazing. Is there an idea that binds all the food together?
Yes, it’s ingredient-led or product-led. We call our contacts – fish mongers and butchers across Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall – and see what they have for us. David’s range is so versatile he can do anything. The key is to make it simple and let the ingredients speak for themselves. We don’t want to disguise them or deconstruct them, we leave that to other talented people.
Where you surprised when you exposed the Barnes Motors sign?
We thought, we expected, we wished that we were going to find something. There were four signs on top of that one, so you could see the layers. There is one behind that one too, which is the original 1890s green grocer frontage. We took an X-ray machine and had a look but for us, Barnes Motors was perfect. It keeps the identity of the garage and the font is beautiful.
It was a great moment for me when I noticed you hadn’t taken it down.
Yeah, we didn’t touch it at all. If it decomposes or disintegrates then so be it.
Barnes Motors, 116 Petherton Road, London. N5 2RT