Three Cheers pubs are the new kids on the block but they are already players in the South London pub market. A £3million refit of legendary comedy and music venue The Bedford in Balham earlier this year is set to be followed by the reopening of the Abbeville in Abbeville Road, Clapham – a road which sparked the property boom in the area when it was dubbed the “Hampstead of the South” in the 1990s.
TOBY PORTER talks to one of the three owners, Tom Peake, who is the firm’s layout expert.
Tom Peake knew from the age of 15 that he wanted to run restaurants and pubs. So as soon as he was able to leave school, he worked behind bars for seven years.
And he didn’t plump for just any old local. He learned from the best.
“I was incredibly lucky to have known what I wanted to do at the age of 15,” he said. “I was drawn into the excitement of restaurants. It is fairy dust on a building. They can be quirky and fun.
“I would sit there fascinated by waiters and how everything worked.”
He signed up for a cocktail bar tending course and got a job in Kensington High Street. He did a business catering course at Oxford Brookes University and worked at El Vino in Fleet Street.
Then he was back in South London, working at the Polygon Bar and Grill in Clapham Old Town. Then he was off to the West Indies.
“I wanted to experience all these different things,” he said. “I was driven – to learn about the industry. When I had days off, I would take the chance to go off somewhere and learn more.
“I started out as a good barman, earning professional respect. Then I met Bas Basian – a wonderful character with a playboy mansion. His optimism was very infectious.”
The secrets Tom learned through his global pub crawl are now being applied to a string of pubs and restaurants across South London. They might not yet be on the same scale as once Wandsworth-based Young’s, but they are among the region’s top four big hitters, having accumulated nine pubs in 16 years.
Tom has also done proper research to ground the pubs within the history of their local areas.
The Bedford has some areas of the original flooring from when the pub was first built. It has artwork celebrating local talents such as David Bowie. There are little snippets which also nod to a more exotic history – a framed flyer for a show at the South London Palace which features a man with a face covered in hair.
“I went to the Wandsworth Heritage Society in St John’s Hill and saw the original drawings for the building,” said Tom. “English Heritage, who listed it, mentioned those plans being there. I was thrilled, because Wandsworth council would be happy to see them. We wanted that inspiration, too.
“The artwork is always important to me.
“To have the theatrical, musical and comedy side is unusual. So we have kept parts of the Victorian pub but included the big names in London music like Siouxie and The Clash, plus people who have played here on their way up, like Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Jack Savoretti and KT Tunstall.
“We did not want a theme – it should feel organic. We knew a lot of money had to be spent but we did not want it to look like a multi-million pound refurb. The chandeliers were already in the building.”
His father is an architect, so he has a feel for the shape and look of the buildings. “I like to get a sense of the place before we revamp it – watch the locals, spend time in the building and breathe the atmosphere,” he said.
“The top two floors had 15 rooms full of horrid stuff which looked like something out of the movie Trainspotting.
“The pub has to feel like a pub, but upstairs, all the bets are off.”
The company started out when the trio – Nick Fox, Mark Reynolds and Tom, opened a 40-cover restaurant, Cinnamon Kay, in Lavender Hill, with mainly Australasian food.
They have since transformed nine pubs in 16 years, mainly for a family-and-food clientele – because couples with kids want to eat and drink too. And there are plenty of them in South London.
The Princess Victoria, in Shepherd’s Bush, is owned jointly with EI Group, who are not as well regarded as their partners.
“Some businesses grow a lot faster but we have taken it slowly,” said Tom. “We could not have done it and the Bedford on our own. They saw what we had done to the Avalon in Balham and liked it.
“But one pub a year is about right. The right site has to come along.
“The Princess Victoria was originally a gin palace, opened in 1839. That was a very significant period in pub history. I remember being there and feeling like it was speaking to me. There is a responsibility not to mess that up.
“The Bedford was such a big project. EI were keen on the bedrooms. We ripped out offices on the ground floor – we spent a lot of time ripping stuff out. There was plywood everywhere. Now we are back to the bare bones and there is significant space on the ground floor and first floor.
“If I am proud of anything apart from my children, it is that turnover has gone up drastically at each pub we have taken over. That means many more people are coming in and enjoying it. I am lucky to be able to decide how it looks. You have to love it, because there is a lot of blood, sweat and tears. But it is incredibly rewarding because it makes people happy. That is a unique thing.”
Main photo: Mark Reynolds, Nick Fox and Tom Peake are new players in the South London pub scene. All pictures: JohnnySPhotography