Hawksmoor Wood Wharf: London's most revered steak chain moves into a floating flagship in Canary Wharf

Richard Brown

10 May 2022

To avoid becoming a white elephant, Hawksmoor’s sprawling new flagship in Canary Wharf will have to rely on more than just wolves. Thankfully, the area now attracts a far more diverse range of visitors than just suits 

10 May 2022 | Richard Brown

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ou’ve got to have balls the size of a grain-fed, hormone-pumped steer to open a big-ticket steak restaurant in a period of economic downturn. All restaurants feed off a strong economy. But, given that they’re disproportionately propped up by men who wear chinos and gilets to bet on line graphs all day – it’s a trope but it’s true; the bit about steak restaurants being sausage fests, but also about the chinos and gilets – swanky steak restaurants, more than any other type of swanky restaurant (swanky Brazilian-Peruvian party restaurants, for example, or swanky Italian-Japanese mash-ups, another) rely on a FTSE 100 in bullish spirits (see what I did there?). It’s true. We can draw our own line graph and you’ll see what I mean...

The story of the swanky (modern) steakhouse begins with Hawksmoor and Goodman. The principal names in premium beef (still) opened in 2006 and 2008, respectively, following a five-year period in which the FTSE 100 was going gangbusters. The index, after recovering from the burst of the dot-com bubble in 2001, was up every year between 2003 and 2008. Would that be peppercorn or béarnaise sauce with your sirloin, Sir?

For several years, the friendly rivals forged a reputation as the best steakhouses in town before... WALLOP. Lehman Brothers. Economic crisis. Bailouts. Quantitative easing. No more venture capital. No more lending. No more swanky steak restaurants. For a while...

By 2012 we’re back on our feet. The City’s up. The Olympics is in town. Consumer confidence is growing (albeit slowly). Cue the opening of the first admittedly-less-swanky Flat Iron in Shoreditch, followed, in 2014, by three properly-swanky meat dens: hyper-masculine Beast (from the same team as Goodman); new Square Mile ‘It’ restaurant M (from the former managing director of Gaucho); and pumping beef bunker STK (straight outta Midtown Manhattan).

By which point you’d have thought that London would have had its fill of steak palaces. Not quite. In 2015, New York institution Smith & Wollensky arrives in a sprawling, two-floor site behind The Savoy; followed, a year later, by Soho’s slightly-less swanky Zelman Meats, another venture from the founders of Goodman and Beast, who are clearly trying to make hay while the sun... WALLOP.

Brexit. Trump. Slumping property prices (the average one-bedroom flat in London fell 4.5 per cent in 2017 and 8.5 per cent in 2018). Coronavirus. A freefalling FTSE (down 34 per cent in the first six months of 2020). No more venture capital. No more expense accounts. No more fancy steak restaurants.

It’s not a fully-formed hypothesis, I’ll grant you. The point I’m trying to make is that it was a bit of a punt opening a two-level, 150-cover steak restaurant – with a 120-cover bar below – in a part of town whose working population was still largely betting on line graphs from bedrooms and kitchens in Shenfield and Sevenoaks.

Or, in the case of the first new Hawksmoor in four years, which opened just before Christmas in Wood Wharf (Canary Wharf’s new residential bit), perhaps not as much of a punt as you might think.

For years now, Canary Wharf has been investing considerable resource into a wide-ranging arts and culture programme. There are exhibitions, there are theatre performances, there’s a range of sporting facilities, including a Yinka Ilori-designed basketball court and a Craig & Karl-imagined mini-golf course. Unbeknown to many people, Canary Wharf is home to London’s largest collection of public outdoor art. There’s an Everyman Cinema. An in-door go-kart track. Canary Wharf is no longer all chinos and gilets. At weekends, it can get properly mobbed. 

Point being, the new Hawksmoor won’t need to rely solely on wolves to avoid becoming a white elephant. It’ll have a steady stream of meat-eaters from the avenues of flats being built along the A13 and around London City Airport and on City Island, and from Essex and Kent and from the Herzog & de Meuron-designed apartments opposite (which I’m told are selling fast). Young people who don’t wear chinos and gilets. Who'll visit with friends who also don’t wear chinos and gilets. OK, so there were plenty of men in shirts and merino zip-neck jumpers when we visited, but also lots of couples and several tables of Gen-Zedders, who could be identified as Gen-Zedders because they looked like they’d come straight from taking the bins out.

To the meat and gravy. Is the steak as good as it was? Yes. Will you have forgotten how much it costs to eat at a swanky steak restaurant? Maybe. A starter of three roasted scallops with white port and garlic costs £18. So you tell me. (To give the squashy little fellas their due, they were the best scallops we’ve ever had.)

What else? The bone marrow and onions; get it. Drinks? The Fuller-Fat Old Fashioned. It’s made with bourbon infused with salty brown butter. You can feel the smack of the oily fat against your lips. It’s not new, but it is big and it is clever.

I want to mention the cocktail menu, which is actually a leather-bound book with a cover etched with a map of the River Thames. It’s beautiful and imaginative and must have cost money and taken time and is the sort of thing that makes you realise you’re somewhere special. But inside is gimmicky copywriting and low-res illustrations that look like they’ve been taken off WordArt. How’d that happen?

You may have been to Hawksmoor before. You may have one closer to where you live. So why schlep to E14? For the physical space itself, for starters. The restaurant occupies a purpose-built pavilion that floats between skyscrapers (it’s been anchored in place; it doesn’t actually move. In case you had visions of drifting around the docks while you ate). I was sent CGIs of the gargantuan structure a year or so before it was towed up the Thames from its build site in Beckton. Nothing ever looks as good in real life as it does in CGIs. The new Hawksmoor does. It’s actually more impressive. Ask for a table by a window and you get to look out at a set from Blade Runner. It gets more impressive as the evening gets darker. 

Back to my hypothesis. It could be a load of cock and bull (wahey) but London will get another expensive wagyu-and-wine cave this summer, when M Restaurants opens its fourth outpost at the foot of Canary Wharf’s diamond-trellised Newfoundland. The FTSE 100 gained 14.3 per cent in 2021, its best year since 2016. A coincidence? Probably. The tenancy was actually agreed six years ago, when the economy was flailing over Brexit and Canary Wharf Group needed a starry F&B tenant for its plushy new built-to-rent skyscraper.

Anyway, Canary Wharf is almost back on its feet. Business has resumed. The chinos now mix with TikTokers and everyone still loves steak. Which makes Hawksmoor Wood Wharf look like less of a punt and more of a dead cert. It’s not like anything else in the area has ever been too big to fail (ahem).

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