Words Matthew Ross
Photography Kirk Truman
51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, May 1706: On a site that was lately fields of cress and winter rocket, Mr Jos Walker takes the very first lease on four handsome storeys of London stock townhouse. For seven pounds, nine shillings and sixpence a year, his tenant will be a certain Mr Chisledon.
51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, October 2015: The Rugby School Estate grants the lease of the same handsome townhouse to Messrs Andrew and Keeling, vinters and restaurateurs. Noble Rot hits Bloomsbury.
One bleary morning eighteen months later, Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling sit in the window of their wine bar and restaurant Noble Rot and tell me over plentiful coffee how it all happened. “The magazine started out with me and him writing a couple of pieces and thinking: hang on, where do we get some images from?”
It’s a well-reported story. Keeling, the A&R man who signed the undiscovered Coldplay, and Andrew, buyer for Kensington wine merchant Roberson, launched Noble Rot magazine in 2013 backed by a motley crew of Kickstarter donors, from expert winos to Popbitch. Now fully fledged, the magazine is blessed with golden contributors, with Marina O’Loughlin, Giles Coren, Francis Ford Coppola and former Beastie Boy Mike D in the latest issue alone. But it’s not been easy: contacts don’t hang like apples on the tree of knowledge.
I wonder whether Mark and Dan see Noble Rot as the Drew Barrymore of wine magazines. “We grew up in public, if that’s what you mean”, Mark replies. “But we genuinely love the fact that we’ve come from a humble beginning, and we cut our teeth along the way. I don’t think you learn anything unless you make mistakes. Remember when Guy Pierce was going out with Mrs Mangel’s granddaughter in Neighbours? Now look at him.”
“I thought he was better in Neighbours, actually,” says Dan. For him, Noble Rot’s Ramsay Street days are its mark of honesty. “When I worked in music, the Arctic Monkeys had this demo tape. Most record companies would posh that up and get it out, which a lot of the time would strip the essence of the band. But not them. They got a lot of traction with their demo. A lot of music lovers just got it because it seemed a lot more real.”
Above our heads hang framed back-issues of Noble Rot. On one cover, a bulldog chews a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. It’s an issue that pitched English sparkling wine against Champagne in a garrulous blind tasting (the bulldog won), interviewed Mark Ronson and rhapsodised over star Loire valley domaines. That’s Noble Rot’s ethos to a T. Mark explains why. “We want to be entertaining as well as to write about wine in an intelligent way. The product that’s created in this world can be incredible, but then you get some toffee-nosed twat in the corner who wants to ‘educate’ you about it. F*@k off! We never want to hijack the conversation in that way.”
It was never the plan to open a wine bar and restaurant either. But with a growing reputation, Andrew and Keeling started to suspect that if they threw their own doors open, people might come. Dan recalls the days they spent walking London’s streets searching for Noble Rot’s temporal home. “All the places we loved were in old buildings with lots of character. We knew about Lamb’s Conduit Street, but we didn’t know it. And when we saw this place at number 51, we thought it was amazing. We sent the owner some copies of the magazine in an Uber, and three weeks after getting the keys we opened the doors.”
The shared spirit of enterprise that permeates Lamb’s Conduit Street has made it the ideal terroir. “We love the combination here of old and contemporary Bloomsbury”, Mark reflects. “Lamb’s Conduit Street is this closely knit mercantile community, where food, drink and fashion all complement each other. We’re part of that community, and we really believe there is potential for it to be even better. We’re also a destination for people who are interested in what we’re doing and want to come back time and again.”
Best mates, first dates, great loves; Noble Rot is the place whenever a bottle of wine needs to be shared by an open fire. Built as a Georgian home, first let to our mysterious man Chisledon, scraps of its eighteenth-century wood panelling and an original wine cellar still remain. It’s also a serious destination for its magnificent Franco-British menu, devised with the tutelage of The Sportsman’s Stephen Harris. Lincolnshire Smoked Eel, Yorkshire Rhubarb and Soda Bread. Braised Rye Bay Turbot, Watercress and Alsace Bacon. Pistachio Cake, Blood Orange and Mascarpone. Each a perfectly tuned triad.
Is Noble Rot the place an embodiment of Noble Rot the magazine, with its spine of anarchism? Mark prefers the word disruptive to anarchic. “We’re classicists. We love the classic wines of the world, the great domaines of the world; we love the great cuisines and the great craft and art that goes into those wonderful dishes. But neither of us are posh lads. We’ve just never been prepared to leave all the good stuff to the blue bloods. We want to get stuck in and stake our claim. We want to have our own take on it, and our own opportunity to enjoy it, to talk about it and share it with people in the way that we want to.”
“Irreverent is a good word too”, Dan adds. “Irreverent of the status quo of the wine trade, which is and has been a very stale thing for decades. From 1800 to 2017, has it changed that much? Wine is a great thing. It encompasses so much – history, art, geology, physics, travel – that you can bring into your own life. But you don’t have to be pretentious, status-driven or affected with it. That’s the fundamental point really. Just don’t be a twat about it.”
After so successful a start, Andrew and Keeling could be tempted by quick wins. But wisdom trumps temptation. “What’s next?” Mark reflects. “Lunch at two o’clock! For now, we’re still cracking on with this place and when we’re comfortable with what we’re doing, we’ll kick on from there.” Something bigger? “Not necessarily”, Dan replies, “because bigger isn’t always better… but something.” Something that’s not being a twat? Mark is adamant: “There will be no twatification about it.”