Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful things you can do. There are a million logistical details to manage, a budget to be balanced, and a menu that must appeal to as many people as possible. It's rather like planning a wedding, except without the guarantee of sex once the ordeal is over. So, when I hear Jackson Berg and Conor Sheehan's story, I assume they must be masochists. The pair have just opened their second restaurant in the space of four months. But when I meet them, I discover quite the opposite: they have in fact found a way to make launching restaurants fun. Here's the backstory: in June this year, Berg and Sheehan launched Xiringuito, a pop-up restaurant on the Kent coast in Margate. Inspired by Spanish chiringuitos (boozy beach bars that serve simple but delicious dishes), their restaurant-stroke-tent was taken to heart by the people of the seaside town, with bookings and plaudits flooding in faster than the tide of London tourists.
While dining in a big marquee is alright at the height of an English summer, it's not sustainable once the autumn wind and rain returns. So, Berg and Sheehan set out to find a new location and have ended up back in their hometown: Liverpool. "If you'd told me we'd be running a restaurant in Liverpool at the start of this year, I'd have said you're crazy," says Sheehan.
Berg laughs and adds: "I didn't see this coming."
Their new home is an abandoned brewery building in the Baltic Triangle, which has become home to the city's creative scene in the last few years, thanks to its big spaces and cheap rents. "This is exactly what we were looking for—a warehouse where we would just have the freedom to put it up and do it," explains Sheehan. "The entrance is similar to what we had in Margate where you had to walk past lots of junk. It's good to have a recurring theme."
As you probably guessed, a visit to Xiringuito isn't like stepping off a paved high street into a bland chain eatery: it's much more of an adventure than that. First, you have to spot the entrance, which is set back from the road in an area of town where it's probably easier to get your tyres changed than to find a decent meal. Next, you walk along a corridor filled with builders' rubble, before emerging into a cavernous, pitch-black room. The restaurant sits in the centre of the space, rather like a triangular spaceship in a secret aircraft hangar. Built from scaffolding poles, it is the same set-up they used in Margate.
"We wanted to go to a city after Margate, since the beach is a bit dead during the winter," says Sheehan. "We were looking at Manchester but we couldn't find the right space. Because we're from Liverpool, we instantly got linked in to the right people. We first saw the space in September and we opened two months later." Those connections stretch back to the very start of Berg and Sheehan's culinary career, when they first met in a food tech class, aged 14. "The friendship was instantaneous," says Sheehan. "We both wanted to be a chef—I've wanted to work in a restaurant since I was about 12."
"For me, it started when I was about 14," chimes in Berg. "I'd done work experience at a restaurant owned by one of my mum's friends. I'd go in after school and they'd all be smoking cigarettes and drinking between the lunch and dinner service, and I thought, 'Fucking hell, this is an amazing lifestyle.' Obviously, that's not what it's really like, but it got me interested." "My inspiration was a bit more wholesome," says Sheehan, before he and Berg both burst out laughing. "On birthdays, we'd go out for a curry or to a Chinese and I'd really enjoy those occasions. It was a treat, it was exciting. I loved the experience side of eating out. Then at 14, my mum and dad got me a job as a kitchen porter to try and scare me off having a career in a restaurant. But I loved it, so I guess that plan backfired—although now they claim it was really good parenting." The next bit of good parenting came when Sheehan's dad hooked him up with a job at Jamie Oliver's social enterprise eatery Fifteen.
"I finished my GCSEs in May and then moved to London in June. At the time, it didn't seem like a big deal, but looking at 16-year-olds now, I think, 'Jesus Christ, how did I manage to move to London when I was that age?' But the camaraderie in restaurants means you're instantly part of a family—a family that involves lots of drinking and going out. It was a lot of fun."
While Sheehan was off seeing the sights in London, Berg was back in Liverpool at culinary college.
"Oh yeah, I was devastated when he left—it was like losing a limb," says Berg, in that charmingly sarcastic was only Scousers can do successfully. "Obviously I was happy for him, but I think he was having a lot more fun than I was. I visited him a few times, we went to gigs." He continues: "Catering college is not very exciting—I was already working in restaurants and I didn't feel like I was getting much out of it, so once I'd done two years I went to work full time at Pushka, which has a good reputation. Then Conor came back and we worked there together, before Interrailing around Europe." Although Berg jokes that the trip was "more about beer and festivals" than it was about experiencing the culinary delights of the Continent, it did give them their first taste of the Spanish beach bars with which they're now making their name.
After returning from their "cultural" trip, the two moved to London, with Berg this time working at Fifteen while Sheehan got a job as floor manager at Soho House. "I just enjoyed the front-of-house side more," says Sheehan, when I ask him about his move away from the kitchen. "The service and experience side is what I really enjoy about the whole restaurant thing." It wasn't long before the two were working together again, this time at Hoi Polloi in Shoreditch.
"I was general manager and Jackson was one of the sous chefs," says Sheehan. "But by this time, we were a bit fed up of running restaurants for other people and we thought, 'Shall we just do this for ourselves?'" Hoi Polloi owners Pablo Flack and David Waddington overheard them talking about their plans and offered them a deal: if the two would agree to run their other restaurant, Bistrotheque, for 18 months, they'd give them a share of the profits they could put towards their own place. "That was amazing because it gave us a deadline but also time to plan what we were going to do," says Sheehan. "It was also a chance to work together as head chef and general manager for the first time." However, their optimism was short lived.
"We were looking up the costings for opening a restaurant in London and it was just too expensive—the pressure of making the repayments would have taken all the fun out of it," says Sheehan. That's when the idea of a chiringuito came up. Within a couple of months—and thanks to a clever and cost-effective design from architect Asif Khan, who they "cheekily asked to make us something on the cheap"—the two were installed in Margate, serving up delights like curried crab burgers and taco shell ice creams. What Sheehan and Berg learned over the summer—and what they are now putting into practice once again—is that a restaurant is rather like a church: it isn't the building, but the people who make the place (only the food at Xiringuito tastes a lot better than communion wafers). "Because Conor and I get on well and can deal with problems, there's no tension between the kitchen and the front of house staff," says Berg. "If waiters and chefs can see the cohesiveness at the top then it trickles down. And then that gets passed onto the customers—they can feel that openness and ease." At this point, I decide to put Sheehan on the spot: how would he describe Berg's food?
"Party bangers," he says, without missing a beat. "It's modern British, which I guess can mean anything—but just like with the portable structure that means we have freedom to do whatever we want. There's big flavours, and he puts the same care and attention to detail the fancy places do but without making a big show of it." Berg seems pleased.
"I loved that," he says. "I almost cried." Has much changed since the pair's move to Liverpool?
"It definitely feels like a winter iteration," says Sheehan, thoughtfully. "With the lights down and the candles on it feels nice and soft and warm in here." "If feels more proper being in here," adds Berg, who says the two are no longer doing a lunch menu as "It wouldn't feel right in this room—it's a night-time sort of space." Business so far has been good at the Liverpool Xiringuito, although not yet on the scale of Margate.
"We'd built a reputation in Kent, but now we're having to start again," says Sheehan.
What are their ambitions for this new space?
"I want it to be busy, for people to come in and be impressed by the food and the service," Sheehan continues. "I know it sounds fucking cheesy, but I just want people to have a good time and get carried away with our idea." "It's about getting them to have a different experience," adds Berg. "I don't want to blow my own trumpet but there's nothing else like this in Liverpool." Berg and Sheehan have a contract until the end of February, at which point Xiringuito could be on the move again.
"This space definitely makes it feel like a winter restaurant—it wouldn't work in June or July—so we'll have to move at some point. But we have the freedom to decide when that is, and where we go."
Cornwall is possible destination for summer 2017 (although last time we asked them, they ambitiously suggested Miami and Napa). But what about a permanent location?
"That could easily end up happening, and we could still keep Xiringuito," says Sheehan. "That's the beauty of it—it can disappear and be back somewhere else. Yes it's a bit stressful moving—anyone who opens a restaurant has that sense of, 'Fucking hell, what have I done?' But most restaurant owners don't have as much freedom as we do, and I'm sure they don't have as much fun."