Russell Norman was an imaginative restaurateur with a flair for the fine details. The bare brick walls, the spineless Polpo cookbook, that Balham subway chandelier in Ape & Bird and those fluffy cuddles in Brutto, were genius touches. ‘No reservations’ policy and use of burgeoning social media showed a shrewd business mind too. Most important was that charming welcome making guests feel a million dollars. Handsome and approachable, full of stories and a good listener, opinionated but never overbearing. Fashionable and comfortable – rolled up jacket sleeves in 2022? Yeah, he pulled it off. A stylish, intelligent, funny and warm man.
Back in the Noughties, he asked to come to our annual bash a couple of times before he had a restaurant of his own and was particularly interested in how the StreetSmart donation was positioned in the order of service. I thought it was unusual, at the time but he was clearly absorbing information. As well as an ideas man, he was a student in the art of service. He repaid the favour on the launch week of Polpo when he found a spot for me and my new date in the packed restaurant and he took the time to chat to us even though there was a queue running down Beak St. Needless to say, the date was more impressed by Russell than me.
The romantic connection continued when I took a different partner to Venice for the first time. Russell had written a great guide to the city in the BA inflight magazine. I ripped out those pages, ignored my Lonely Planet and used his guide instead all weekend to duck in and out of Bacaro and his recommended sights. I told him about the trip and he was really chuffed. And when that date eventually married me, we had pickled onion monster munch as a snack at our wedding because Russell had put them on the bar menu at his pub.
Like so many of the things he’s been lauded for, he may not have invented them but he made us appreciate them again – meatballs, pizzetta, menus as tablecloths, lace lampshades and so much more. That first night in Polpo, The Strokes were playing on the playlist and not some unrecognisable elevator muzak encountered elsewhere. He had it at the perfect volume and you knew he had experimented with a full house to get that right. He’d taken Venice mixed it with Manhattan and poured it out into an affordable Soho glass. Quite a trick
Russell was a keen supporter of StreetSmart from his years at Joe Allen and Caprice to Polpo and beyond. He helped raised thousands for our cause, cared about our success and especially the people we helped. He saw the sense and humanity in improving the communities where his restaurants thrived. We recently presented him with an award as a thank you for his help over the 25 years StreetSmart has existed. Many restaurants and their teams have been inducted into our hall of fame but only two individuals – Fay Maschler and Russell Norman.
Writing this I realise how he touched my life and career and how thousands of employees, diners and kindred souls must have similar stories. That’s an incredible power. What a duller place the London restaurant scene will be without him and what a hole he must leave in the hearts of family and friends. Every Aperol spritzed, every small plate finessed and every negroni sipped in this city should be done so in his honour.