25 Years Of Meson Don Felipe

Restaurateur Philip Diment tells us about a quarter-of-a-century of Meson Don Felipe, London's first tapas bar.

After half a lifetime in the restaurant businesses and two-and-a-half decades of running Meson Don Felipe, Philip Diment is still struggling to define what makes a successful restaurant.

The bi-lingual restaurateur has owned seven venues throughout his career and worked at countless others, but is typically self-depracating when it comes to the success of his Spanish-themed eaterie.

“I just try to put myself in the customer’s shoes,” he said.

“You can’t define a successful restaurant. It’s not just the food, its not just the staff, its not just the place – it is a mix of everything. If you get the mix right people come.”

Indeed, people – including more than a handful of celebrities - have been flocking to Meson Don Felipe for a quarter of a century.

They tell Philip they love the reassurance of the classic Spanish menu, the lively guitar player in the corner and the familiar face of manager Santiago Sosa Baez, who has himself spent 25 years at the restaurant.

But Philip admits he was less than convinced when his wife Ana suggested they look at the vacant property on the corner of Short Street and The Cut in the mid 1980s.

He said: “When my wife said she’d seen a place available on The Cut I said you must be joking. I’d only been here once before and I thought God it’s the last place I’d open a restaurant.

“There were a lot of undesirables in the area and no other restaurants to speak of. But we looked at the theatres and the offices and decided to give it a go.

“It was one of the best decisions I have made in my entire life. The Cut has changed hugely for the better in that time.

“It was a risk but any business is a risk. It’s the people who swim against the tide who end up winning in the end.”

Ana has played a pivotal role in the venue herself, including introducing Philip to the Madrid tapas which defined the social and gastronomic philosophy of the restaurant.

Philip said: “From the start I just loved the concept of tapas. It just seemed such a sensible way to spend time. Once we opened we got a growing reputation but it really took off when Jonathan Meades reviewed us in The Times. The article created a huge amount of media interest. Since then we’ve never looked back.

“So many of our customers that I talk to have been coming here for 20 years or more.

“I still get a big kick out of it. It’s a wonderful business to be in because people come here because they want to enjoy themselves.

“Most people my age are retired but I can never imagine retiring. I’ll sure as hell give another 25 years of Meson don Felipe a shot.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Santiago, who met his wife of 11 years while working at the restaurant.

Santiago said: “I love it here. Its so busy and fun. My wife was working in the kitchen and I was in the restaurant. It went from there.”

Philip also owns a vineyard near Madrid and imports his casa del pinar to be consumed along with the “Rolls Royce” Iberico ham he serves at the restaurant.

And he admits alcohol has long been part of the Meson experience.

“I was talking to one of the customers who lives in America and he was telling me about the time he popped in on the way to Ascot for Ladies Day,” he said.

“He arrived with all of his friends in their hats and suits at lunchtime and they left when we closed at midnight having never made it away from their table. Things like that are so funny.”

You can see pictures of Santiago now and 25 years ago in a gallery at the bottom of this page.