Top London Steakhouse Hopes for Rare Praise in New York

Can one of Europe's finest steak restaurants win over a city with a prime cut named after it?

Have you heard the one about the British restaurant planning to take steak and fries to the home of steak and fries?

New York is home to the biggest names in the business: Historic restaurants such as Keens, which traces its history to 1885, and Peter Luger, a relative newcomer from 1887.

To such illustrious establishments we shall soon be able to add the name of Hawksmoor, circa 2006.

The ambitious British restaurant group is to open a monster 14,000 sq. ft. (1,300 sq. meter) venue in Tower 3 of the World Trade Center late next year. 

Some British imports are welcome in the U.S. But let's face it: no-one has ever been heard muttering that what New York really needs is a London steak house. 

"There is definitely an element of nervousness, because we are tapping into something people have a real emotional attachment to in New York," says Will Beckett, who founded Hawksmoor with his business partner Huw Gott.

"The legendary New York steak houses have been around for a century or more. Often, you think England has a long history compared to the States. But for what we do it's the opposite. "

WIll Beckett

WIll Beckett, co-founder of Hawksmoor

Photographer: Richard Vines/Bloomberg

Hawksmoor had been considering expanding internationally from its current base of five restaurants in London, and one in Manchester, and settled on New York after being invited by Westfield Corp. to apply for the site in Lower Manhattan.

In  the U.K., Hawksmoor is known for the quality of its grass-fed British beef. In New York, the question is whether to focus on being British or to follow the principle of developing long-term relationships with local farmers?

Beckett says he and Gott plan to take the latter route, which means diners in New York used to grain-fed beef won't be stuck with the grass-fed variety favored in the U.K.

"We want to replicate what we’ve done in the U.K. in the sense of finding the best farmers we can, raising the cattle the way we feel that they should be raised, both in terms of ethics and flavor, and having direct relationships with farmers that we can work on over years," Beckett says. "We want to celebrate really great American produce.

‘‘We are grass-fed fans in the U.K. That's our history. It's almost everyone's history until about 1950. Also, once you start learning about the mass-production techniques on grain and some of the side effects, whether on animal welfare or environmental health, logically people favor grass-fed.

"But I am under no illusion whatsoever that it's very, very stupid to go somewhere and say, 'That thing that you all love, here's something better.' We won't do that. We'll just try and find some stuff that has been fed some grain that is the kind of thing they are used to but with the highest possible ethical standards."

Balancing Act

Beckett says he hopes there won't be too much of a culture clash because he and Gott take much of their inspiration from New York restaurateurs, including Danny Meyer of Gramercy Tavern and Keith McNally of Balthazar.

"A lot of stuff that we do here has a pretty heavy American influence: steaks, fries, burgers, lobster rolls, hot dogs. And even some of the stuff that you don’t really expect has influences from people like April Bloomfield (Spotted Pig) or David Chang (Momofuku).

"We've been to New York a lot over the years and have brought some stuff back from people who are pushing restaurant boundaries in New York. I like the idea that in a small way we might do that the other way."

A Hawksmoor breakfast

Photo: Hawksmoor

"The coals-to-Newcastle thing is obviously a worry. But you do what you always do, which is to try and learn as much as you can about a place, what makes it tick, and you try and be humble. But you also don’t lose sight of the things that made your restaurant popular in the first place. You have to balance those two things, the local and the Hawksmoor."

In the U.K., Hawksmoor started as a single restaurant in Spitalfields, near the City financial district. (Beckett and Gott had up to then been losing money on other establishments, including a pub and also a Mexican restaurant, Green and Red.) 

Beckett says there's plenty of room in New York for another steak house and he's hopeful Hawksmoor will be known for the quality of its meat, its support of ethical farming and its focus on the environment. Oh, and for great cocktails, too. 

So where does he go now when he wants a good steak in New York?

He names a Keith McNally establishment.

"It isn't even a steak restaurant: It's Minetta Tavern," he says. "The steak is really good. They do good burgers. They do a bit of French bistro food as well. There's a cool bar and the staff are really lovely. There's just a vibe in there I really like."

That's interesting. London-born McNally is himself a British import.

Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.