Charming, understated and elegant: these are three words that describe The Sign of the Don – the recently opened restaurant from veteran restaurateurs, Robyn and Robert Wilson – and the couple themselves. Neighbouring their well-established eatery, The Don – which is housed in the former Sandeman Port and Sherry Cellars on St Swithin’s Lane – both restaurants pay homage to Sandeman by replicating the distinctive Sandeman logo, of a cloaked black figure wearing a Portuguese sombrero, on the restuarant signs. The couple – of 41 years – have both worked and lived in London in the marketing, financial, and journalism industries, but had “no experience of the hospitality industry other than as customers” prior to opening their first project, The Bleeding Heart, back in the early ’80s.
The success of the Wilsons’ projects is staggering. The Bleeding Heart celebrated its 30th Birthday earlier this year and they’ve opened two more restaurants in London since. Modestly putting their successes down to “wonderfully friendly staff and robust food all washed down with generous quantities of very good value wine in a rather louche ambience,” we’re not convinced that that is the only reason they’ve done so well.
Robyn admits, “It’s about sticking to one’s knitting. It’s often tempting, especially when you come back from some really sexy new place, to think well we could do that, but we have so many regulars – some of them thirty years standing – who would be unhappy if we changed too much.”
Originally a wine bar, The Bleeding Heart rapidly transformed into a thriving 400-cover restaurant. Regulars are their backbone, with most of them coming to test out The Sign of the Don during its soft opening. This kind of support is invaluable and is arguably one of the main reasons they’ve survived the economic downturn.
The spacious wine bar on the ground floor at The Sign of the Don showcases a large cork bar designed by Stage One – the design studio behind the spectacular Cauldron at the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony – and is framed by an impressive display of whisky, sherry, port and gin. George Sandeman himself donated “hundreds of old barrels to chop up for the floor and the banquettes, and introduced us to his friends at Amorim Cork, who supplied the cork for the bar,” claims Robyn. The lower levels have been knocked through and formed a maze of cavernous brick-wall cellars and private dining rooms.
Travelling back to New Zealand – where Robyn’s heritage lies – regularly to visit their vineyard, Trinity Hill,
Beginning the interview the old-fashioned way, with a drop of Trinity Hill Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine – from their very own Kiwi winery – and a trio of the house croquettes, one of which is the secret recipe gifted by George Sandeman’s own mother. With wine flowing, Robert’s story-telling begins. I hear about their perusal into the world of wine making, a natural progression it seems, and one that was realised when their friend John Hancock, formerly winemaker at Morton Estate Wines, suggested getting into business together. “We had a small holiday house in Gigondas and were great Rhone enthusiasts. In ’87 we were planning to invest in a vineyard there with a Swiss friend, but John [Hancock] persuaded us to invest in Hawkes Bay,” claims Robert. Drawing on Robyn’s Kiwi heritage Hancock convinced the couple to work with him and their first site was purchased. Trinity Hill Wines, in Hawkes Bay New Zealand, has since become one of the finest New Zealand wine producers and is the second most popular (after the ever popular Cloudy Bay wine) New Zealand wine on wine lists in the UK.
Robyn and Robert have clearly had a real presence throughout the construction of The Sign of the Don, having moved back to the city the pair share their time between Suffolk and London. Despite spending weekends in Suffolk “to breathe green and raise lambs for the restaurant” the couples’ hearts clearly belong to London. They converted the space above The Bleeding Heart into a luxe apartment during the building of The Sign of the Don and made London home once again. With London flowing through their veins it was only a matter of time before the pair shared their favourite spots for food and wine. The fall-back restaurant is the same one it’s been for 20 years, Le Caprice, because it is reliable and pours Trinity Hill by the glass. They booze in Bar Boulud because “Head Sommelier David Vareille will always be pouring something good.” Their favourite wine destination is 28-50 – any of the branches – especially if the owner Xavier [Rousset] is on duty. And what about the best wines they’ve ever drunk? Well, a 1976 Richebourg from Jean Gros, a 1982 Corton Charlemagne and a Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs of course.
If you like your food and wine give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.
21 St Swithins Lane, City of London, EC4N 8AD; 0207 626 2606; www.thesignofthedon.com