“WE HAD A little sniff that the space could turn into something really lovely,” says Oliver Milburn of the Covent Garden address that was once a chain restaurant and is now Cora Pearl, one of the hottest new tables in London. Milburn and his pals of 20 years, Tim Steel and Tom Mullion, would seem to know what makes a good room: Their previous restaurant, Kitty Fisher’s, opened in 2014 and, with its cozy interior and wood-fired cooking, quickly started drawing in a steady stream of celebrities, politicians and other notables.
One could argue that Milburn and friends are rare naturals, since none of them had ever run a restaurant before Kitty Fisher’s. A romantic pair of dining rooms in Mayfair named after an infamous 18th-century courtesan, that project was a labor of love that saw the trio wearing tool belts and calling in friends and family to help complete construction. “The hospitality and hosting and gregarious giving of food and drink and fun—that comes easily,” says Milburn, an established actor who, like his two collaborators, has had to transition into the role of full-on restaurateur; in fact, he frequently mans the reservation lines for both places. “The challenge is learning to deal with the succession of problems that creep up and that you have to handle without your customers noticing.”
For Cora Pearl, the group seized on the location’s views onto Henrietta Street out front and the churchyard in back, and brought in the help of architects Basil Walter and Brenda Bello, who have a track record of collaborating on London restaurants and clubs. Walter stuck with the restaurateurs’ homespun approach. “We wanted to keep the ethos of who they are, and we did it on a shoestring,” he says. The hallmarks of Cora Pearl—the name comes from another historic courtesan—are glossy, deep-green tiles, leather banquettes, antique mirror panels, Aubrey Beardsley photo prints, and a caged iron staircase. Brasserie Lipp, in Paris, was an inspiration. “There is no shyness about color,” Walter says. “It comes from our notion of how to create something that has sparkle and glint and makes people inspired and intimate.”
“It’s a place that Cora might have visited herself,” says Milburn.
Yet these are not hot spots where the food is an afterthought. Kitty Fisher’s was where Tomos Parry, the restaurant’s opening chef, made a name for himself; he recently earned a Michelin star at Brat, in Shoreditch. George Barson, who put in time under local giants Heston Blumenthal and Nuno Mendes, now helms the kitchens at both Cora Pearl and Kitty Fisher’s. To take the measure of his proficiency, it’s worth noting that the typically capricious critic Giles Coren calls Barson’s chips with bordelaise sauce “the dish of the effing century.” At Cora Pearl he presents a menu of dishes that are smartly prepared but never take themselves too seriously: mackerel with a Bloody Mary sauce; agnolotti with peas and summer truffles; chocolate ganache and malt ice cream.
“George is the most important guy,” says Milburn. “Once you are confident in the food, you can turn the lights down, turn the music up, light the candles and pull the drinks. That part is easy.” corapearl.co.uk.