With another restaurant recently having closed in King Street, many of those remaining are nervous about the prospects for Hammersmith's main thoroughfare. DAN HODGES surveyed restaurants along its length to see how well they are coping with the downturn
As recently as two years ago, several modern Indian restaurants rubbed shoulders in King Street, with Agni, Akash, Chula, Green Chilli, Shilpa, Sagar and Indian Zing all vying for attention.
Skip forward to a high street hit hard by the recession and the opening of the Westfield shopping centre, and many of those businesses and their multinational neighbours have bitten the dust.
A recent survey by Hammersmith and Fulham Council found that a quarter of units at the the west end of King Street now lie empty, and the authority claims that the regeneration of the area is one of the main motivations for the controversial town hall redevelopment.
Whatever the merits of that scheme, it is clear that local restaurants have been hit hard by the downturn and are continuing to feel the pinch of rising costs and falling footfall.
If an immediate solution exists, it is far from obvious to those still clinging on and trying every trick in the book in an effort to drum up trade.
Stefan Stefanov and his partner Emilia Savova, both 48, are enjoying reasonably brisk business at the Credit Munch Cafe – in stark contrast to their other restaurant a few doors down King Street, the Wishing Well, which closed in November after 12 years.
Mr Stefanov said: "It used to be a very well-known restaurant, it was very reasonable and for many years it was extremely busy.
"About three years ago everything started going down and down, and in the end we weren't even getting 50 or 60 customers a week. Even in the worst case scenario, we used to do 50 customers per day."
The cafe now sells plenty of £1 sandwiches and £2 baguettes, with loyal customers often sending their orders in by text message, but it is the daytime business on which Mr Stefanov and his partner now rely.
"At the Wishing Well we tried special offers and whatever we could think of – even offering two meals for £5," he said, "But we still had no customers. King Street after 8pm is dead."
Close to the Wishing Well, the Akash Indian restaurant is another recent casualty, a 'to let' board now obscuring the signage, while Chula went the same way last month.
The Shilpa Indian Restaurant is clinging on, but manager Sathyan Oruvil said he has no choice but to continue fighting for survival despite rising costs and few customers.
"It's hard," he said. "Restaurants are closing but we don't see any increase in customers as a result. We're very worried because we don't know what's happening.
"Our costs have risen a lot – the cost of wholesale has more than doubled, but we can't increase our charges because if we do we will lose our regular customers.
"We have to carry on because we have to pay the rent and the rates. All we can do is cut the staff and cut their salaries."
Two Japanese restaurants, Yoshi Sushi and Minato, each had a handful of customers during the Chronicle's lunchtime visit. But Minato manager Mia Shin was not brimming with confidence about her venue's prospects.
"Were hanging in there, which is what we have to do," she said. "There's no immediate risk. Compared with last year, we have maybe half or one third as many customers."
It is a similar story at Noodles Magic, which has seen a noticeable drop-off in trade despite earning a good reputation among office workers for its lunchtime deals and the quality of its Thai food.
Manager Senis Srinaganand, 66, said: "It's been really slow in the recession and it hasn't really picked up. It's a tight squeeze – without our £5.95 lunch offer I think we would have closed."
The Buddha Kitchen occupies large premises a few doors down, but it too had only a few tables occupied for lunch.
"I don't know if we're going to have to close down or if it's going to pick up," said 39-year-old manager Elaine Tok. "We work hard but the council also has to help us and think of a way to introduce more people to Hammersmith."
A strip of three neighbouring restaurants creates an even more forlorn impression. Green Chilli, another Indian eatery, remains boarded up after being gutted by a fire in September, while Mexican-English fusion restaurant Robin Hood Zorro and Lam's Chinese Restaurant were both closed for lunch despite displaying 'open' signs in their windows.
The council is pinning its hopes on the town hall regeneration project going ahead, bringing with it an influx of new residents to occupy 320 luxury flats and revive the area's night-time economy.
Strategy leader Mark Loveday concedes that the stretch of King Street between central Hammersmith and Chiswick offers an 'extremely poor trading environment' for current tenants.
He added: "Around a quarter of shops in the area around Hammersmith town hall are currently vacant. However, if the King Street regeneration project progresses it will revitalise the west end of the town centre with a new public square, homes and shops, and attract more people down King Street."
It will take years, however, for the work to be done. In the meantime, the area's restaurateurs can only sit tight and hope that the tide turns back in their favour.
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
It is only at the end of King Street, approaching the point where the road transforms into Chiswick High Road, that two survivors seem to be bucking the trend.
Indian Zing has grown steadily in popularity since launching six years ago, and has been so successful that chef-proprietor Manoj Vasaikar recently opened a new venue in Barnes, Indian Zilla, in place of celebrity chef Antony Worrall-Thompson's failed Barnes Grill.
According to Mr Vasaikar, a recession is one way in which outstanding local restaurants can outshine others which are merely average.
"We're doing well and things are levelling out in the restaurant business – if you are good, you will survive," said the 49-year-old. "There were too many restaurants in King Street.
"Our business has built very gradually and nicely over the last six years.
"The level of food quality has to be good to get people in again and again, and you have to keep investing money in the restaurant. The critics can give you the best reviews, but you have to keep it up – you can give 10 good meals, but if you give one bad meal then that customer will not come back."
Across the road, in a distinctive gazebo-like building next to Latymer Upper School, La Piccola continues to serve up good quality pizza and other Italian dishes to a loyal fan base.
Owner Pino Manzari, 63, greets every customer with a warm welcome despite running a one-man operation during the day, but says that his restaurant would be in danger if he did not have 40 years' experience in the industry to draw upon.
While absorbing the VAT increase, rising businesses rates, increasing energy charges and other fixed costs, he remains reluctant to pass on the cost to customers.
"At the moment I'm a one-man bad in the morning, and my wife and one waitress join me at night. I'm making a living but I'm not making any money," he said.
"This is my fourth recession, but this one is really bad, and it's not by any means finished or about to finish. If I was not an expert in the industry or I wasn't prepared to work as hard as I do, things would be different."