Words by Simon Difford
Originally from: Manchester
Profession: Bar operator
“The new cocktail revival started at the Union Club in Soho when I met Simon Difford with Dave Steward and Dick Bradsell. We were the four horseman. That’s when it started. I did the bars, Dick did the drinks, Dave did the alcohol and Simon did the writing about it. That zeitgeist moment happened there in 1997.
What also happened was the Met Bar opened in 1997, Alphabet opened in 1997, Match opened in 1997 and Home in Shoreditch, a new style of bar, opened in 1997 – all within a couple of months of each other.” Jonathan Downey, July 2015.
I remember that night well. I knew Dave and Dick was already a legend, but this was the first time I’d heard of, let alone met Jonathan. He was an ambitious cock-sure young commercial lawyer with aspirations to not only open the best cocktail bar in the world, but a chain of them. Within months he’d opened Match Bar in London’s Clerkenwell and within a few years he did indeed have a chain of them.
Jonathan grew up in Manchester but landed a high-flying job in London and spent time in the US, Hong Kong and Dubai before returning to London in 1996. He once told me, “I experienced something of an epiphany in Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental while drinking a gin and tonic. It was brilliantly made and tasted better than any G&T I’d drunk back home. I was living in London but going home to Manchester most weekends where the bar scene was exploding. I wanted to bring some of that Manchester vibe to London but with properly made drinks.”
The name Match was chosen because Jonathan wanted a simple, one word brand. He also intended to match food from different countries with appropriate drinks, for example serving Spanish beer, Spanish wine and Margaritas with tapas. However, it proved challenging to find a chef to deliver such a menu. To quote Jonathan, “A kitchen relies on one person whereas a bar is a team operation. If one bartender leaves the whole thing doesn’t collapse.”
When you meet him it is not only striking as to how strong his Mancunian accent remains, but how often he refers to Manchester bars and how good they were back in the early 1990s. Match Bar and the bars Jonathan creates today are massively influenced by his formative drinking years and Manchester’s bar and music scene. "If you open a restaurant, you start with the kitchen, but if you're opening a bar start with the sound system. When I decided to open Match, everyone in London was drinking in shit pubs, All Bar Ones, Pitcher & Pianos. I'd be sitting in a bar in Manchester and would look around and think you just can't get this in London."
A self-confessed “drinks fascist”, it would not be unfair to describe Jonathan as the Gordon Ramsey of the bar world. Both men have a reputation for saying what they think – often with a string of expletives, being tempestuous, arrogant, bad tempered, belligerent and at times damn right rude. Perhaps it is these very qualities that ensure high standards at their venues. Neither are men you’d particularly want to get into an argument with and Jonathan’s tirades are stuff of bar legend, although he denies firing a bartender on the spot for shaking a Sazerac.
"I don't think I am rude, just brutally honest. “I can get pissed off if you get a shit drink, or if someone's playing the wrong music at the wrong volume, but that's not ruling with a rod of iron. Unless you're on your first day on the job everyone knows how things are supposed to be. But if you're not, someone's responsible. I set rigorous standards that everybody ascribes to, otherwise why are they here?" It’s telling that while chatting to Jonathan to write this profile he said “I was fucking furious” more than once.
Like Ramsey, Jonathan (JD to his friends), can also be charming and a most entertaining drinking partner – as he was that first night I met him and numerous occasions since. There are just as many stories about his loyalty and often his rants are simply evidence of how passionate he is about the bar industry.
He used to convey frustration that others didn’t understand that “great music, a great vibe and great drinks equals a great bar”. Food didn’t feature but now it seems Jonathan has had another epiphany because he now talks about food a lot, saying “40% of people under the age of 24 consider themselves teetotal in the UK. They don’t drink like us.”
Right from the start Jonathan appreciated that a great bar is only a great bar if it has great bartenders, hence his opening of EC1 with the legendary Dick Bradsell at the helm.
“From the very outside I really admired bartenders in the same way that people admire what doctors, nurses and teachers do. I wanted to make sure they were properly supported and had everything they needed. We were getting a lot of clever kids coming to work with us, graduates that didn’t want to go into a suit and office job. People like Kevin Armstrong, Michael Butt, Sam Jeavons and Pete Kendall. These are clever guys who wanted to have a bit more fun in their 20s. They started to compete, it developed into testing, written tests and pour tests. Eventually they created their own bar training program which was really high aiming.
“We created this team of junior bartender, bartender, senior bartender, head bartender, group head bartender. Every time you got promoted on your tests your hourly rate went up. We got amazing trips and educational stuff. It was like a virtuous circle of learning and excellence.”
Jonathan also persuaded Dale DeGroff to come on board as Beverage Director, overseeing the menus and bar program of his rapidly expanding group. “Dale came over and took us to a different level. He didn’t make us twice as good, but almost. He came along at a really good time and had a massive impact. More than anybody.”
£ millions made & millions lost
JD is the first to admit to making mistakes. He’s a risk taking entrepreneur and over almost 20 years in the industry, opening more than one bar for every one of those years, “not everything was as good as I’d have liked it to be”. “I was in Australia for Match Bar & Grill and I got a call from Rick my business partner. “If I don’t send £50k back to London today it’s all going to collapse.” “The business wasn’t managed well. Although we were taking a shit load of money we were not making a shit load of money. We had just spent £2 million on the East Room and $1 million on Match Bar in Melbourne. It turned out we had £2 million more debt in the business than I thought. We had a £2 million hole.” JD wound up the company so saving some £1.6 million of owed taxes and bought all the assets into a new company so saving the business. “As a corporate lawyer I was able to do all of that. There was a chunk of debt that we had to manage down.”
But for JD the optimist, that was a mere hiccup. But what followed in 2010 was a catastrophic disaster. It was at 7:30am one Thursday morning in March that JD first heard about the fire in Sosho, his venue near London’s Old Street. Initially he was not too concerned but the fire kept on burning and practically consumed the whole block.
He remembers how they gathered in a room at his barrister's offices, along with police and fire officers, to watch the footage from infra-red CCTV in a bid to gauge the cause: "I knew we'd had a big night and was dreading seeing my bartenders having a brilliant time after their shift, setting fire to the bar with overproof rum or something, but they shooed the last person out at 2.30am and immediately went into breakdown, super professional-like, putting everything in wheelie bins, which would otherwise have voided the insurance policy. They didn't even have a beer.”
"Then after all the lights went out, we could still see this single image of a tea light candle still burning. After 40 minutes flames started to lick up the wall and set the artwork above alight. It was a relief we established how it started - I remember loads of rumours flying around, but that was not hard to deal with - I honestly couldn't care less. But losing the East Room was devastating: it was phenomenally profitable, was gonna make money for decades, very valuable. I'd spent a lot of money on it, borrowed £800,000 to build it, and the rest of the company was suddenly at risk. I never thought we were done for but we needed to move quickly and pull in a few favours. We had outstanding support, in particular from John Coe of Coe Vintners, but it took us just over 18 months to recover financially."
JD is yet to receive a penny in insurance for that fire and an £8 million claim remains. He is supremely confident that his insurer will eventually pay out. “We’ve got no question we’ll get a big chunk of that.”
Jonathan still owns London’s legendary Milk & Honey now in its 14th year, but his latest passion is Street Feast and what are best described as pop-up food markets with great bars. Presently Street Feast is operating in three locations, Dalston Yard where he operates 12 bars, Model Market in Lewisham with five bars and Dinarama in Shoreditch with a further six bars. Jonathan describes Dalston Yard as “fucking spectacular” whilst Dinarama, the latest of the venues, is already attracting 11,000 people each weekend. “I’m making more money than I’ve ever made and have more bars. It’s where stuff’s happening.”
The success of the pop-up food markets led Jonathan, along with of Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain, to set up London Union PLC, a company established to set up a similar concept to Street Feast but in a permanent home. “Like La Boqueria Market in Barcelona but with more hot food, ideally the first will be in Smithfield Market.” The idea has attracted investment from around 20 of London’s big name chefs including Jamie Oliver, Yotam Ottolenghi and Wahaca’s Thomasina Miers.
45-47 Clerkenwell Road, London, EC1M 5RS
The original Match Bar opened in 1997 with sofas and tables at street level, surrounding a sunken, stone-floored ‘pit’, which housed the bar. Details of the décor here such as the railings and sofas where repeated in the Match Bars that followed - bigger and possibly better than the original.
37-38 Margaret Street (nr Oxford Circus), London, W1G 0JF
Located just a stone’s throw from Regent Street, the second Match opened in 1999, consisting of a small raised dining zone, a lengthy, corridor-like bar area and a cosy back room. The clientele was a mixture of the suited and the stylish but tendered to get younger and livelier as the week drew to a close, usually DJ assisted. In this relatively small space, both the discerning, table-bound Martini drinker and the out & out party goer were satisfied.
Jonathan describes Match Bar as “a cash cow that made £500,000 profit a year.” It was the success of this second bar that led him to stop being a lawyer to become a full-time bar operator. He sold his "best-ever business" in 2012 following an unsolicited approach.
2a Tabernacle Street, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 4LU
The third of Jonathan Downey’s Match bars opened in 2000, repeating the winning formula of top quality drinks and exposed brickwork. The old skylights from the bar’s previous incarnation as a photographic studio remained, with a host of second-hand leather sofas and the group’s trademark slatted screens.
Jonathan christened the odd location, between Shoreditch, Old Street and the City South Shoreditch, hence the bars name. It draw a range of stray Hoxtonites and adventurous All Bar One escapees. On weekends the place morphed into a DJ-led party venue.
“I pretty much invented the DJ bar. It didn’t exist at the time. No one had done a bar that went from lunchtime into the night time with a DJ coming on and a club sound system and great cocktails. Coming from Manchester, I’d always wanted to do a Manchester kinda bar - cool vibby atmospheric design and great music, and add to that classic and modern American cocktails. But I never wanted to go into the club side but that’s what Sosho was.”
8 Broadwick Street, Soho, London, W1F 8HN
A simple doorway in the heart of Soho, the entrance to The Player would have been complete if it had a sign saying 'model downstairs', a feel which is further enhanced by the lingerie in the window of Agent Provocateur next door.
When The Player first opened in September 1998, it enjoyed immediate success, partly due to the presence of bar guru Dick Bradsell. However, he left, there were "licensing difficulties" and eventually the Player closed. It was saved and reopened by Jonathan Downey's Match group in October 2001, looking and feeling even better than it did before. Eventually Jonathan sold the Player “for stupid money.”
Milk & Honey
61 Poland Street, Soho, London, W1F 7NU
Working as a drinks writer for Esquire Magazine in summer 2000 Jonathan went to New York and spent an evening on a bar safari with Dale DeGroff and a cameraman in tow. “After seven bars and two drinks in each only Dale and I were left standing. He said I’m going to take you to this place downtown but you can’t write about it or tell anyone about it. We went to Milk and Honey and met Sasha in his fucking suit with his weird ways but just loved it immediately. I had the Milk and Honey site but didn’t know what to do with it so after a couple of drinks I asked him if he’d considered doing a Milk & Honey style bar in London. Almost a year later we openedMilk & Honey London.”
177 Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 2DY
“I was offered the Canvass site that had gone bust through my mate who was an Architect. A basement bar on Portabello with a late licence and I could get to do fucking Tiki drinks. We’d done 70s with the Player, nudging into 80s with all those tequila sunrises. We’d done the Art Deco era – between the wars with Milk & Honey. I thought now I can do post war – I wanted to do 50s/60s Americana. What I wanted there was a bar that looked like it was owned by a guy that was really into Tiki, but wasn’t a Tiki bar – just sold Tiki drinks.” “I sold Trailer to my Business partner Rick for a token amount.” Reviewed here.
Chamonix, France (opened 2004)
“A hotel with a Milk and Honey style bar in an Art Deco mansion in the French Alps. The best bar in the Alps, but that’s not saying much as all the bars in the Alps are rubbish”. Sadly the Clubhouse closed after a licensing altercation.
2a Tabernacle Street (above Sosho), Shoreditch, EC2A 4LU
Like its Soho sibling, Milk & Honey, the East Rooms was a hidden gem of a member’s club which sat above Jonathan’s much brasher Sosho bar come club.
The East Rooms was accessed via a pair of nondescript wooden doors to the right of Sosho and then up stairs resembling a forgotten fire escape to the reception on the first floor. Past the receptionist, you’d walk through a corridor with diner-style booths and an Enomatic machine which perfectly dispensed over 50 wines by the glass. This led to the main lounge which combined 70s styling with exposed brickwork and New York loft warehouse. The floor above boasted a dining area and roof terrace with BBQ.
The excellent wine selection was rivalled by an impressive spirits line-up and some of the best cocktails in London. Jonathan proudly opened the East Room in February 2008 only for it to be destroyed by fire two years later.
Match Bar & Grill
"It was a fucking disaster, I had the wrong business partner."
“Just a cheap and easy deal. "I'd been going there since 1982 but owning a business there meant it stopped being fun."
45-47 Clerkenwell Road, London, EC1M 5RS
“I lost interest in Match EC1 so renamed it. I sold it for a fucking fortune.”
Danger of Death
202 Brick Lane, London, E1 6SA
“We opened as a members bar but our members never really used it so we’ve turned it into a regular bar.” Reviewed here.
70 City Road, London, EC1Y 2BJ
This pop-up bar close to London’s Old Street roundabout opened in opened March 2013 for a ten month period. It had kitsch surroundings, complete with shag pile carpets, ironic wallpaper, faux walnut walls and Formica tables. It served wood-grilled meats, fish tacos and crab on toast but most importantly, signature pint-sized cocktails - a six-strong array of twisted classics in dimpled pint glasses.
“Where we got involved in Street Feast. We took the Rotary Bar concept (great cocktails and beer in a laid-back environment) to the first Street Feast.”
89 Turnmill Street, London, EC1M 5QU
High ceilings, a dominant oak bar and huge Victorian windows gave Redhook a Grand Central Station vibe, and the moody lighting with dark banquettes seemed to swallow you up for hours. Although maybe it was the martinis that kept us there for so long.
“Was great but never worth the hassle of running a proper restaurant with a bar.”
And numerous others…
Including nearly taking over the Century member’s bar on London’s Shaftsbury Avenue. That’s another long expensive story, “a waste of a million quid”, but Jonathan’s short version is "we'd exchanged contracts and spent money on the refurbishment but we never completed."