Words Kirk Truman
Photography Adedotun Adesanya
“You don’t have to be in a fancy restaurant to drink good champagne. You don’t have to have fancy food to go with good champagne and vice versa…” says Sandia Chang, Sommelier and General Manager at Bubbledogs.
It is day – afternoon, evening or later, it doesn’t matter: Tuesday noon, Friday evening, late into Saturday evening. Come wind, come rain, come snow and shine, a queue mounts on the sidewalk amid the burgundy neon glow behind the window of 70 Charlotte Street. The chatter of the week has gone, replaced with a new theme: word circles of a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, that serves gourmet hotdogs and grower champagne, with a little-known secret restaurant, Kitchen Table, hidden behind a leather curtain at the back. Husband and wife team, James Knappett and Sandia Chang unearth the story behind their relationship that has given birth to Fitzrovia’s ever-popular Bubbledogs, whilst I sample the menu and admire the butchering of a trout.
Having acquired the site in January 2012, the couple were able to open in August the same year. Now, almost 2 years on, Bubbledogs is a subtle transatlantic import from our not so distant American cousins. James and Sandia met whilst working together at Thomas Keller’s restaurant, Per Se, in New York. Having forged a more-than-work relationship, the two decided to settle themselves here in London where Sandia began to reminisce to her days living in New York and the various dining experiences available; from the high-flying Chelsea and Greenwich Village, to the cool of Williamsburg and Brooklyn. “We both came from a fine dining background but couldn’t agree on the same concept for a restaurant we wanted to start. I wanted to stray away from that, though James, as he’s a chef, wanted to carry on with his routes,” says Sandia.
The concept behind Bubbledogs is to create an informal dining environment for everybody to enjoy: where good food meets good champagne minus caviar, without the formality of table cloths and city boy antics, along the cool of Charlotte Street. New York based restaurant Crif Dogs, a favourite of both James and Sandia, resonates.
Sandia Chang’s years living in New York appear to have donated much to her inspiration for the restaurant, with hotdogs called anything from ‘Fourth of July’ to the ‘Mac Daddy’, which I thoroughly recommend with a side of ‘Tater Tots’ (an American take on the British hash brown). Alongside hotdogs, Sandia bares a love for fine wines and grower champagnes, the two coming together to form Bubbledogs. “I was always big into grower champagne and it was with that in mind I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to open a champagne and hotdog restaurant.’ It was that moment (six bottles in) where I said, ‘I want to open a champagne and hotdog restaurant!’ I said, ‘you know what, I’m going to do it, I’m going to open a grower champagne restaurant!’ I was tired of people in England drinking cocktails and drinks with little sparklers at the clubs. I was tired of every bar being stamped with these big house names because they have the marketing budget for them, when nobody knows about these small growers who are growing their own grapes and marking their own champagne. I wanted to start a restaurant that just lists these small growers instead,” she explains.
Initially, the couple had very different visions – Sandia was keen to start a relaxed dining experience, fronted with a fine wine and champagne selection. James, however, had a vision of creating a fine dining restaurant. “Mostly, the champagne and hotdog thing was my idea. That’s the reason that we have ended up running two very different restaurants in here.” Sandia explains, “It so happened that we ended up with this space where we can run the bar and the kitchen separately.” She says that Fitzrovia is the ideal location for Bubbledogs thanks to the prevalent mixing of younger people and professionals in the area. She goes on to explain this even further, “They’ve all travelled around and they’re a bit more open-minded in terms of dining out, they’re not stuck in the mind-set of having to sit down at the table, having to have three courses, having to have table cloth when drinking champagne.”
The environment is calm and informal: “You don’t have to be in a fancy restaurant to drink good champagne. You don’t have to have fancy food to go with good champagne and vice versa,” says Sandia, looking about the room. As you step around the front-of-house area, you are greeted by an array of bare brick walls, champagne glasses nestled behind the bar facing out onto Charlotte Street, a stretch of stools lining the stairwell where a collection of illustrations show a dog flirting wildly with a bottle of champagne. The images bear an uncanny resemblance to Sandia’s own pet dog, Noodle, who was rescued from Battersea Dogs home and had become a firm fixture at the restaurant. It is explained to me that, in a sealed tunnel underneath the building, scenes from The Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine” (1968) were filmed, just another addition to Fitzrovia’s rich history. Of the general atmosphere and casual environment of Bubbledogs, Sandia tells me “I wanted to open a champagne bar that wasn’t stodgy, stuffy and pretentious; I wanted it to be cool and easy going. I wanted to make people feel like they can drink champagne all the time. I didn’t want people to feel like they have to wait to drink champagne until it’s their birthday or their anniversary. I wanted it to be caviar free. Great wine and great food doesn’t have to be a four star table experience.” She then goes on to proclaim that “Fitzrovia was the place to have it!”
In the background of this informal spectacle of bubbles, there is a brown leather curtain which you would assume leads to the kitchen, and indeed it does, though there are no hotdogs in sight here. Noodle tries to follow us into the kitchen but is turned away as we pass through the curtain. I’m enter onto the sight of a trout laid upon a table as it’s carefully sliced and butchered by the head chef (and Sandia’s husband) James Knappet, who greets me. I welcome you to the theatre! There is a strong contrast between the informality of the front-of-house and the back where, stepping from the wooden deck of Bubbledogs into Kitchen Table, 19 front row seats make for the smallest reservation only, rectangular Fitzrovia kitchen you will find. The sheer focus that James conjures, as he tears at and slices through a large trout that has been laid out across the table I find similar to the crafting a piece of art, whether it’s making illustrations or the careful turn of a photographer’s lens. This is a thing of artistry; this is a personal, serious-faced dining experience. James explains that “in here it’s about the food. I pick all the herbs and ingredients fresh from a location in London, the ingredients we’re using today were picked yesterday. I am a huge advocator of chefs foraging for their own ingredients. It’s all about cooking good quality seasonal food. It’s a personal dining experience where we explain to people where things come from, what they’re eating,” he continues, knife in hand. The menu for Kitchen Table changes daily, entirely dependent on what James and his staff feel works for that particular day, or have been able to collect during their foraging trips. “It’s about us cooking what we want to cook, rather than being some posh restaurant in the city giving people what they want. Here it’s all about what we want to cook; it’s about personality, of course, though, we want people to enjoy what they’re eating. If I feel like making pasta tomorrow then it’s on the menu. Don’t come here if you want roast duck every night… you won’t get it!” he warns.
Miraculously, each member of staff has a role which moves them between both Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table. The two restaurants may differ significantly but they work together to make for one of London’s rarest combinations, a place with a harmonious meeting of formality and informality. Since opening, almost two years ago, there has only been the one Bubbledogs & Kitchen Table on Charlotte Street, and now, both Sandia Chang and James Knappett are beginning to express an interest in expanding further. A legitimate London based New York wiener experience, looking out onto a mounting queue along Charlotte Street, with a passionate chef and talented sommelier: husband and wife, kept carefully at bay on either side of a leather seal. This is a rare experience and it is right here in our neighbourhood.