Dine out with the very best
Motcombs founder Philip Lawless tells ANGELA SAMMON about catering to the rich and famous, City trends and staying ahead of the competition… – 12/05/10 (original link)

Motcombs. It’s practically legendary in London-Irish circles. In fact, it’s practically legendary in London. Why? This classy Belgravia venue has been the “go-to” venue for years for Irish business networks, post-Embassy ‘dos’ and as a home from home for members of the Irish Youth Foundation and the Women’s Irish Network.

Don’t be surprised if you spot a few familiar faces amongst your dining companions. Prince Andrew lunched there recently, Frank Lampard is a regular and Motcombs also boasts the likes of John Cleese, Terry Venables, Kieren Fallon, Chris Evans, JP McManus, Eamon Holmes and even Maggie Thatcher amongst its clientele.

But if Motcombs is legendary then so too is its proprietor Philip Lawless. The gregarious Dubliner is all-consuming and his personality is practically woven into his hospitality empire.

For Motcombs is just one corner of his business. He is also the owner of the Bow Wine Vault, a gorgeous building, oozing with character, that is tucked away off Bow Churchyard in the heart of the City of London.

There are also the Motcombs Private Suites across the road from Motcombs restaurant, offering two dining rooms for those who want the restaurant experience without the inconvenience of dealing with the public!

In short, Lawless is a hospitality king. He’s exceptionally good at what he does, and if the devil is in the detail, then his trio of venues are positively sinful! Omnipresent, constantly on watch, checking every minute detail, he is ‘hands-on’ in the extreme.

“I liken it to an evening at the theatre,” he explains, “being fabulous on opening night is one thing but what about weeks down the line? What if the actress is having an off day because she’s split up with her boyfriend or the leading actor isn’t up to scratch because he’s got a hangover? That’s no good for the audience who is in that evening.

“For me, every performance has to be top-class, every customer who comes into my establishments deserves the very best and I intend that they should have it. Otherwise, business will quickly go sour and I’ll lose my customers to another establishment. I’ve built a great reputation and I intend to live up to it.”

If first impressions count then the staff at the Lawless establishments certainly do him justice. Exceptionally polite without any form of stiffness, they are warm, welcoming and extremely efficient. These establishments are high-end, but there is none of that formality that can often spoil or intrude on an evening. Lawless first became known as the general manager of the famous Scott’s restaurant in Mount Street.

Eventually, though, he succumbed to the urge to go it alone. He purchased Motcombs in 1983 and the Bow Wine Vault in 1987. Later, when the premises that now house the Motcombs Private Suites became vacant, he saw an opportunity to expand his empire even further. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, he is full of joie de vivre and tales from his years in the industry. He tells me how the security staff of the rich and famous make his life difficult and are often harder to handle than the person they’re protecting.

He makes for an excellent lunch companion as we discuss changing tastes, trends, and London living. In the Bow Wine Vault he describes how, in the 80s, the place would be full of clever young men who could be there one day and gone the next.

“They’d all arrive in about noon, wearing really bright jackets. They’d have been at their desks since early morning, trading currency and making a fortune. They’d order jugs with vodka and orange or tomato juice so that nobody would know what they were drinking, have lunch at 1pm and then return to their offices.

“But the whole thing about the City was that they could be here one day and then they’d just vanish if they lost out on a big deal.

“The culture was very different back then too. Lunchtimes would have been quite busy and quite boozy but the evenings very quiet. The evenings are now our busiest times, as the days of those long lunches seem to have come to an end. The thing that doesn’t seem to change in the City though is that it shuts down over the weekend. We close on Friday night and re-open on a Monday morning. There just isn’t anyone around, apart from the odd tourist looking for St. Paul’s.”

Lawless didn’t have a great start to life as an entrepreneur and knows as well as any that business can be tough. He purchased the lease of the Bow Wine Vault in the August of 1987 for £800,000. Within weeks the same lease was valued at £200,000. He smiles about it now but it must have been tough.

“Of course it was tough,” he shrugs, “but what can you do. You just keep at it and keep at it and hope that you turn a corner. It taught me a lot about being on the losing side and that’s probably why I run such a tight ship. I don’t intend to go back there.”

Lawless is obviously a workaholic. Motcombs is open seven days a week, only closing on Good Friday and Christmas Day.

To relax, he plays golf and is very keen on horse-racing (one of the Motcombs Private Suites is named after owner and breeder, the late Robert Sangster). But even this, it seems, is tied into the day job.

“A lot of my customers are interested in golf and horse-racing and I like to be able to engage with them. There is always a lot of banter around the bar area and I think it’s important to join in and to have something in common. It creates a good atmosphere.”

That good atmosphere is evident during my visit. The Portuguese ambassador has popped in from his office around the corner and the place is full of election fever. Locals and tourists mingle at the bar and discuss the news of the day while enjoying the impressive wine list.

Lawless begins every day at Bow Wine Vault at 8am and finishes in Belgravia late in the evening. After we leave the City and walk from Sloane Square tube station towards Motcombs, he waves to neighbours and regular customers.

He points to one lady across the street and tells me she and her husband have been married for 60 years and have lunch at Motcombs every Saturday. “Isn’t that amazing?”, he says in reference to the longevity of their union. As he nears almost 30 years at the helm of his flagship restaurant, I feel he hasn’t fared too badly either!

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