Hawksmoor has opened its first Irish restaurant – an impressive 152-seater with an elegant back-to-back bar and a private dining space – in the heart of Dublin, in the historic National Bank building at 34 College Green.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of Hospitality Ireland Magazine, in July of 2023.
The story of Hawksmoor started in 2006, when two childhood friends, Will Beckett and Huw Gott, opened a restaurant serving steaks from traditionally reared cattle and sustainably sourced seafood alongside a progressive cocktail programme in a then unfashionable part of East London. It became a favourite across the UK and New York and ranked number one on the World’s Best Steak Restaurants list (it is currently second in the world, and the highest-ranked steakhouse in Europe and North America).
Here in Dublin, Hawksmoor will celebrate the handsome fabric of the former National Bank, an ornately detailed Italianate building designed by William Barnes in 1835. Many original features are being restored, like the banking hall’s grand 40-foot hemispherical cast-iron dome set on Corinthian columns and its elaborate plasterwork. The use of reclaimed materials is being incorporated throughout, with reclaimed doors and repurposed antique lighting all featuring. There will be beautiful parquet floors throughout.
In the past year, Hawksmoor has become the world’s first carbon-neutral steak restaurant group in the UK and the US. It has also set out a plan to get to net zero and become the first UK restaurant group to gain B Corp certification, joining a global movement for an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economy. Its impact report sets ambitious targets and provides transparency about its progress.
So, Will and Huw, tell us about your background – where you grew up, studied, etc.
We’ve been friends since we were 11. We grew up two streets apart in St Albans – and we live two streets apart in SouthEast London now – and went to school together, always in and out of each other’s houses. We grew up in food-anddrink families, but heeded the advice of our fathers, initially – going to university and getting ‘real’ jobs – before following our passions and opening our own little bar when we were 26.
What first drew you to food?
We just grew up around food and drink – it was our first passion. Will’s mum is food-and-wine writer Fiona Beckett. Huw’s parents have a small cafe, and his grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents were all butchers in Wales.
When did you first realise that you wanted to do this professionally?
I think we both realised that we weren’t very good at our ‘real’ jobs and weren’t very happy. This is what we’d wanted to do originally. Huw, in particular, was always coming up with ways we could do it. A restaurant specialising in pies, a chain of railway sandwich shops – that may have had more to do with his other passion, of trains and other forms of transport – and a white-label music bar were all ideas that didn’t last very long.
What was your first big role?
We opened our own bar when we were 26, having maxed out credit cards, borrowed whatever we could from whoever we could, and turned our hands to reducing costs by doing some of the building work ourselves, badly – water leaked down a light fitting in the first bar for so long that having an inverted rubber glove over the light fitting was a regular feature. Our ‘big roles’ included being the bartenders, the general managers, the guys that cleaned the toilets – we loved it!
What was that like?
It was the least likely combination of happiness – extremely high – tiredness – ditto – and financial reward – nonexistent – we’ve ever experienced.
Why did you set up Hawksmoor?
We’d tried three things by that stage, all of which were varying degrees of failure. We were still searching for something that worked. We’d travelled a lot over the years, had eaten a lot of beef at home when we were kids, and always thought it was odd that no steakhouse we’d been to matched our memory of steak growing up. When we found a failed Turkish-grill restaurant on a nondescript street in East London, it all seemed to come together.
How did you find that?
In some ways, fantastic. The restaurant got great reviews, guests became regulars, staff stuck around, and the restaurant slowly became a success. Unfortunately, we weren’t around much to see it, as we still had three other failing things and were pretty overwhelmed working out how to keep all the plates spinning.
Why the move to Dublin?
We’ve been coming to Dublin for years, to spend time in one of our favourite cities for food and drink – always keeping an eye open for a beautiful space. Someone wrote to us last week, saying they’d met us on our first trip over, seriously looking for a site and trying to meet the people who make the city’s industry tick – it was seven years ago! We fell in love when we saw the former National Bank on 34 College Green. It’s only taken us 17 years to get from London to Dublin, but we can’t wait to open Hawksmoor in what we think is the most hospitable city in the world.
Tell us about Hawksmoor – the ethos, food, service, etc.
We always wanted to run restaurants and a company with an ethical heart – one that we could be proud of, and, hopefully, one that the wider industry and customers could be proud of, too. For us, that integrity is centred around three things: sustainability, charity, and being a good employer.
We’ve spent the better part of 20 years now meeting farmers and fishermen, to find like-minded partners. Doing that in Ireland has been a joy because everyone we’ve met thinks like we do – basically, that traditional farming is best and that ethics equals flavour. The country is full of small community farmers grazing cattle on rotation on fertile soil, doing things the way they’ve been done for centuries. I guess what really makes us stand out – other than the way we think about beef – are three things.
Firstly, for a restaurant with such a great reputation – we’ve been ranked the number-one steak restaurant in the world – and in such a beautiful building, it’s a pretty casual place. We really want staff to be themselves and our guests to feel comfortable and really enjoy themselves.
Secondly, there’s so much attention to detail here. It’s not just the steak – the sides, the cocktails, the vegetarian food, the desserts … it all gets constantly reworked and refined. We want you to enjoy everything you have here, not just the steak.
Finally, we hope we’re running a business with real purpose at its heart. We care a lot about the people who work here, about the communities we are in, about various causes that are close to our hearts – especially food poverty – and about being as sustainable as we possibly can. No other steak restaurant group is carbon neutral, and we’re the only restaurant in the UK or Ireland to have achieved B Corp certification. That may or may not be important to our guests, but it’s really important to us, and I think it’s increasingly important to people who care about the industry and think carefully about how restaurants can be run.
What makes a great restaurant?
A great restaurant makes people happy. The food and drink are part of that, but it isn’t the whole story. The atmosphere and the service are crucial to the customer’s experience. From the moment they enter to the moment they leave, they should feel special and genuinely cared for. We like places where the service is natural and professional, but super relaxed. You can’t have a restaurant full of happy guests unless you have a happy team working in the restaurant. We put a lot of thought and work into that.
What are the changing trends in hospitality – people’s expectations, new elements, etc.?
Since Covid, lots has changed and lots has stayed the same. Lots of people have really appreciated being back in restaurants after being denied access for so long, and they still search out special experiences and time with colleagues, friends and family, but habits have also changed, and work from home, the cost of living, and the volatility and costs have made it more difficult to run restaurants for lots in the industry.
Customers are looking for exceptional quality and appreciate that doing things right has value to it, so while our customers continue to support us, expectations have increased. That inspires us to keep trying to build something even better and recommit to trying to do things the right way.
What are the major challenges at the moment?
We often say we can manage three priorities at the same time – standards, people, and one other – but any restaurateur who isn’t thinking about higher, more consistent standards and about how to attract, retain and develop great people all the time isn’t thinking about the right things enough. For a lot of the last year, the third thing has been how to manage costs, so everything isn’t just passed on to our guests.
What are the main opportunities?
Challenges always lead to opportunities. Hopefully, by focusing a lot on standards, we end up busier – a good sign in Dublin was that our soft launch sold out in 14 minutes! By focusing on people, they, in turn, want to come and work here. We had an open recruitment day in Dublin with space for 100. Almost 230 turned up – the queues stopped traffic! By focusing on purpose – in particular, sustainability – we have an opportunity to be known as a progressive restaurant company – hopefully, the most progressive steakhouse. We are the world’s first carbon-neutral steak restaurant group, and the only restaurant in the UK or Ireland with a B Corp certification, joining a global movement for an inclusive, equitable and regenerative economy. That, in turn, attracts people to us and helps effect change in the industry. It’s a good start, anyway, but [there are] plenty of opportunities to go after. See our full report here: thehawksmoor.com/purpose.
Any other plans on the horizon for the next year or so?
We’ve announced that we’re going to open a restaurant in Chicago in a year or so, but, hopefully, 2023 will see Hawksmoor bed in in Dublin, give us a chance to get somewhere close to the end of our Dublin restaurants list, and get to see even more of the country. We’ve got a particular desire to see more of the west of Ireland.