How do you manage traffic through a difficult venue with several different spaces targeting different crowds at different times? Chris Cranswick-Smith of emmilou reveals his solution to Sharon Aris
Breaking into any city restaurant scene is a challenge for the most experienced of operators, so when Chris Cranswick-Smith, now 27, opened his first venture, emmilou, two and a half years ago, you could be forgiven for describing him as ‘brave’.
For a start, the location he chose—at the Taylor Square end of Bourke Street in Sydney’s Surry Hills—came with more than a few obstacles: The site had previously been part of a boutique hotel whose sudden collapse had left local resentment, a fact not aided by the hotel’s signage still adorning the adjacent terrace; it’s opposite a homeless hostel that even in a suburb with a bohemian reputation added more local character than some prefer. Finally, the space itself is challenging, the Victorian terrace narrowing to little more than hall-width past the first inside room, thanks in part to the aforementioned hotel development, whose pool space encroaches inside.
Ever the optimist, Cranswick-Smith has sought to turn what could be seen as negatives into virtues. “I liked the idea of it,” he says of the grungy quarter. “It was a bit of Madrid, some Soho, some Potts Point”. Attractively too, the site came with a licence attached. Influenced by his time in Spain, late-night dining and drinking was what he really wanted to do. The name spells it out: Tapas, cocktails, lounge.
So he’s set about dividing the 40-seater restaurant into three effective rooms, each with its own intimate and distinct charm. Out front, two bookable areas on the terrace sport sharehouse-style shabby-chic lounges where guests can sit and watch the passing parade while waiting for a table or meeting friends for casual drinks. Juxtaposing these are upmarket Ghost chairs in the formal inside seating area, dramatically lit with ruby-red shadows casting onto the dark banquettes they face, which can be configured to accommodate large groups at shared tables. More intimate diners are two-seated in the hall behind, the adjacent glass wall lit prettily thanks to the pool on the other side. Rounding out the atmospherics, Cranswick-Smith spends considerable time mixing up the music himself, which will range from St Germain to fast and funky, depending on the mood of the night.
With lounge settled, it was then time to concentrate on the other two elements—cocktails and tapas. Having grown up with an at-home masterclass courtesy of a father who is a respected name in the wine business, Cranswick-Smith already had a head start, but perhaps as a result he has insisted on hiring a specialist in-house bartender who has styled a soft leather-bound list for serious drinkers and novices alike.
But it’s the food where things really get serious, for Cranswick-Smith has set himself one final high bar: turning casual drinkers into fine-diners.
Because underpinning all this is a tapas menu that aims higher than most, influenced both by Spain’s high-end molecular gastronomy and regional Basque cuisine. For Cranswick-Smith’s food pedigree is Michellin starred, having started emmilou after 10 years’ experience in the kitchens of fine dining establishments in Europe and Australia including Sydney restaurants Aria and Est, along with seasons on elite super-yachts and time as the personal chef for the Prince of Bahrain. To this end, along with the conventional patatas, bravas and jamon, you’ll find duck liver parfait on the menu, foams, home-cured boar and savoury beignets. “Our tapas is more expensive than some other tapas,” he acknowledges. “But I refer customers to our quality, and our wine list. It’s very important to be proud of the product you have.”
“I understand the power of word of mouth. I hunt down food bloggers on Twitter.” Chris Cranswick-Smith, emmilou
He also ensures that the bread, salads and whitebait are affordably priced. “Our bartender is 21 and a lot of his mates come in and we learnt from them. They were focussed on the booze but also liked getting an accessible cheap feed.”
Still, for all his interest in the cuisine, you mostly won’t find Cranswick-Smith in the kitchen but out on the floor. For this he credits the time he spent accidentally out on the floor of a restaurant in the US—largely due to visa problems—as being pivotal. “It made me have an view of what a dining experience should be,” he says. “Most people want to enjoy what they’re doing. They don’t come in for the sole reason of eating. It’s about choosing a dining experience.” As a result, five months after he opened he left the running of the kitchen to his sous chef and started working the floor. “I run the service myself. It allows me to see everything from a management point of view. A lot of my chef friends say ‘I don’t know how you can be out of the kitchen, I’m such a control freak’ and I say ‘but I’m such a control freak I can’t be in the kitchen’.”
Especially working out of such a small space he says individual attention is essential: “Every single person’s experience is tailored to their own needs. If I find people sitting on the armchairs, I squat down to take their order. Then they think ‘this is a real person’. If a group of 30 is coming in to celebrate someone’s 25th birthday, when other people call to book that same night we advise them of this and suggest they have aperitifs at 6.30 and dine at seven. If they came at eight we’d lose that table.”
Finally, Cranswick-Smith is dogged when it comes to generating buzz, aggressively pursuing the twitterati, an attention born of necessity. “We didn’t get a huge amount of media when we started. We waited six months for a Good Living review. So part of our presence in online media was of necessity. I changed the name to ‘Emmilou Lounge and Tapas bar’ so when people put in the search ‘tapas’ we turned up. Before that it was ‘emmilou drink, wine, dine’ which didn’t tell people what we did.
“I understand the power of word of mouth. I hunt down food bloggers on Twitter. I invite them to come in. I had one food blogger, ‘Nigella’ who has a huge following, 10,000 people. When she reviewed us I watched it online. In the first hour there were 37 comments. There’s a power in that.
“We were knocked out of the Good Food Guide this year. When I asked them why they said it was because they thought we were too bar-oriented. I wrote back and pointed out we combine quality music, food and drink, but ultimately, it hasn’t affected our business because most clients found us online.”
Next, and Cranswick-Smith most definitely intends there to be a next, he’s looking at opening other venues. “First and foremost is the restaurant here. But I’m certainly looking to be around. I want to be known as an operator.”