Starting in his family’s coffee shop, Robbin Azzopardi has been active in the hospitality business for 17 years. A graduate of the culinary arts program at Fanshawe College, he was employed as an instructor in the curriculum for two years. Transitioning into a career as a chef and caterer (White Pomegranate), Azzopardi quickly made his name with his instinct for original flavour and texture combinations, keen sense of style and his belief that cooking is an expression of self. As a culinary consultant and events planner with hands-on attention to detail he was a frequent participant and collaborator at high end culinary events. (We are well acquainted and I have enlisted his expertise for a number of charitable initiatives where he has generously donated his time.)
Employed at various restaurants in London, including the London Hunt Club, Waldo’s on King and the Tasting Room, Azzopardi was most recently settled in as General Manager of the Auberge du Petit Prince before making the jump to become part of an entrepreneurial duo with Kathryn Banasik to open the Byron Freehouse. The term freehouse is traditionally a term for pubs that are owned independently of the breweries that supply them. Contemporary restaurateurs are using this term to denote something hipper and more social than a sports bar while also taking many of their cues and influences from the gastro pub concept.
Banasik, no stranger to the restaurant community, started in real estate when she was 20. After being in the business for 12 years she decided to set her sights on a new challenge and find a way to articulate her vision.
As she describes it, “Robbin and I are best friends, like siblings, and his passion for the restaurant business inspired me.” As a team Banasik and Azzopardi have united all their strengths to create the Byron Freehouse. The duo believes that business concepts must evolve to keep in step with changing demographics and economic conditions in order to create sustained public interest.
When a new and high profile restaurant opens it falls under intense scrutiny even when it has planned a soft opening. An important introductory stage, a soft opening is a time when a restaurant can iron out the last of its challenges and measure how efficiently it will operate with customers. The Byron Freehouse opened in August 2013 to praise, but not without the requisite growing pains in the smartly re-imagined premises formerly occupied by La Bella Vita Ristorante on Commissioners Road.
Conventional wisdom dictates that location is the most critical factor in a restaurant’s success formula.
“Some people have a pre-conceived idea of what we are because we located in an existing location but we were not out to reinvent the wheel,” says Banasik. “Creating an accessible and memorable experience, one that clients will want to repeat sounds easy; however, the far trickier proposition is to be able to quickly adapt to the dictates of your clientele, especially in a neighbourhood, once you have put your concept, vision and heart and soul on the line.”
“We saw that the space had lots of potential, a beautiful patio, access to parking, and could easily be gutted and redesigned for a new concept,” says Banasik. “It was one of the locations that I wanted to pursue. Byron is a community that I have lived in and liked. We want to create our own niche in Byron and build relationships in the community. From conception to construction to being operational the project took three months to complete.”
The Freehouse is designed to have striking visual impact. The main room is a dramatic example of the openness of contemporary restaurant design with a variety of seating options and bold and spirited infusion of colour in the design, wood accents and meticulously scripted quotes decorating the wall.
“We took some inspiration from the success of the bar at the Tasting Room. Our bar was designed to be one of the main focal points of the room. [We made it] inviting and accessible by placing it near the entrance. The open kitchen appeals to the fascination with what goes on behind the scenes, it adds to the experiential feeling and social aspect and not just on busy nights,” opines Azzopardi. “Clients like to see the chef and flames and steam and hear the din of pots and pans in the kitchen, it is all part of the theatre of eating out.”
Crafting a “kick ass” menu that really works comes after much trial and error and is ultimately predicated on learning from past missteps. Tweaking a menu takes time, effort, imagination, collaboration, patience and persistence.
Chef Joshua Sawyer was selected not for his even temperament but for his solid experience and skill in delivering a menu of classic comfort foods, specifically updated riffs on gourmet versions of classic quick-bistro fare. Sawyer’s is a mostly scratch kitchen and even condiments like mustard, relish and ketchup are made in-house and that increases the depth of the restaurant’s appeal.
“The menu is combination of things we like to eat that are approachable, everything from rack of lamb to hotdogs,” says Azzopardi.
The hotdog is actually a foot long frank wrapped with smoked bacon and grilled. It is topped with cheese, chipotle aioli and tempura flakes. The kitchen has already dropped beef tenderloin from the menu and replaced it with meat loaf. The popular meatloaf has adopted the moniker, “Little Tommy’s Meat Loaf,” named after talented sous-chef, Thomas Waite, and comprised of pork infused with Asian aromatics, caramelized onions and served with a ponzu-like citrus soy glaze.
On the original menu Ahi tuna nachos with avocado, pickled ginger, red pepper, cilantro, sweet soy and wasabi cream were “the bomb” (in a good way). Chorizo nachos are house-fried corn tortillas layered with crumbled spicy sausage, caramelized onions and cheese and topped with fresh pico di gallo and yogurt. There are also mahi-mahi and pork tacos. Sweet and spicy Korean BBQ wings with sesame seeds and spring onion are meaty and fiery. The house ice cream sandwich is maple bacon ice cream inserted between two chewy ginger molasses cookies.
“It is a romantic, sexy business and you’ve got to remind yourself that it is a business first and foremost, and to take criticism constructively,” muses Banasik. “In this business, you are only as good as your next meal.”
Byron Freehouse was conceptualized to be a casual, entertaining and enjoyable restaurant appealing to the Byron neighbourhood and all-encompassing demographic, including families. Says Azzopardi, “the restaurant probably has a more varied demographic than anywhere else in London. From the start, the restaurant has encouraged patrons and staff to have a little fun. It is casual and at times we don’t mind cranking up the music a bit.”
Recently opened independent businesses like Mark Kitching and Mark Navackas’s Waldo’s in Byron, a satellite operation of Waldo’s on King in the Covent Garden Market, continue to add another level of sophistication and choice to Byron’s culinary scene.
“We really think that it is great that Waldo’s in Byron opened next door to us. Anything that encourages people to visit these neck-of-the-woods is good for us and for the Byron community.” says Azzopardi.
1288 Commissioners Road W.
Monday to Sunday: 11:00 am–close
BRYAN LAVERY is a well-known chef, culinary activist and writer. Mr. Lavery has spent many years in teaching, consulting, and advisory roles with various culinary initiatives.