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Markus Thesleff on 50 years of Sale e Pepe: 'You’re competing with people's memories that aren't real'

 (Darren Chung)
(Darren Chung)

For the restaurateur Markus Thesleff, restoring Sale e Pepe was personal. The restaurant — Knightsbridge’s original chic Italian, 50 this year — has long figured in his life. “I remember all these lunches and dinners here,” he says, looking around the room wistfully. “My parents would bring me as a kid. It was the hottest spot in town, this and San Lorenzo.”

He taps the table. “I mean, really, this was the spot. I remember coming in, the hairs on the back of your neck would go. It was cool. And later on, before we went to the West End to go to like Tramp, or L'Equipe, we’d come here first.”

At the time Thesleff is talking about — “this is the late Eighties, the Nineties, when the place was literally full of smoke and people would be setting fire to the amaretto wrappers, which always got stuck in the AC” — Sale e Pepe was indeed the spot. Tables might have Roger Moore or Rod Stewart sat around them, or Diana Ross, Priscilla Presley. Noel Gallagher was in. But things change: left under a spotlight, and even the brightest colours fade. Was there a time Thesleff stopped going? “Yeah,” he says, with a small nod. Why? “I think… I think the industry had moved on, and maybe this place hadn’t.”

His return came by chance. “I was meeting a friend for lunch, and he suggested here,” Thesleff says. “I was like, ‘huh’.” He shrugs.

But the lunch went well, and a wave of nostalgia hit. He got chatting to Antonio Corricelli, the long-time owner. “I think he’d been ready to retire for a little while. He knew what this could be, but I think he realised that to get there, he’d need to invest another 10 years of his life into it.”

 (Darren Chung)
(Darren Chung)

The pair bonded, in part because of Thesleff’s history with the place. “He’d had offers from all the big boys, but I think it came down to legacy, and who he could trust with the brand.

“He’s like, an absolute gentleman, super old school; his word is his bond. I’m much the same way, so it was all kind of done over a handshake.”

For Thesleff, who’s built a career creating brands — he’s best known today for Los Mochis and Viajante87, but made his name with the Pangaea nightclubs — the move, he says, felt odd. “This is very different for me. Normally, I’m creating new brands from nothing. But how often does one get a chance to buy a business with this kind of history?”

That history is in all the details of what might be called Sale e Pepe 2.0. The approach has been to keep things the same, while changing everything. Certainly, it looks different, utterly different. What was once white and stark and cold is now dark and inviting, brass-lined and beautiful. “It’s warm and cosy now, and there’s much better acoustics. That used to drive me mad — it had an echo, like a reverb. And there was no sound system, so everyone could hear everyone’s conversations, so you couldn’t speak.”

Markus Thesleff (Darren Chung)
Markus Thesleff (Darren Chung)

The bar has been overhauled too, with a brand new “playful, 50s chic” cocktail list. The food menu, meanwhile, has been slimmed down, focussed. “I don’t think young kids are coming in for liver in butter and sage,” Thesleff deadpans. But it’s mostly classic Italian fare, some with an American touch. There’s pasta alla vodka, beef carpaccio, parmigiana. Never cheap, it would now be easy to spend very seriously: £85 for a rack of lamb, sea bass at £65, veal Milanese at £52. Not such a surprise, then, that “our average spend has completely changed.”

Thesleff says the aim is for “a little bit of naughty chaos. I just feel like right now in London, there isn’t an Italian doing that, that’s buzzy and elegant.” He dismisses the Big Mamma group, who are behind hits including Gloria and Jacuzzi. “That’s tons of fun, I think it’s a winner, but it’s not really our crowd. Maybe if they take their kids there…”

Instead, what he wants, “you can only really get it and like, 5 Hertford Street, or Annabel’s. But that’s not me, it’s not my scene. I want that, but without that, if you know what I mean?” I think so, I say — a little exclusivity, the sense of being in the place to be? He nods.

 (Justin De Souza)
(Justin De Souza)

The reopening, which was marked by a heaving party in the middle of this month, has been going well — really well, says Thelseff. “A lot of the regulars are going nuts, and they've already been back once or twice already, and they’re taking pictures and calling friends.”

What’s that crowd like, these days? “Royalty, titans of industry, international royalty, especially Middle Eastern. Chairmen, CEOs. But our biggest clientele is Americans — and I don't know why. It's just got this reputation in America.”

Not that it’s all been effortless. “You’re competing with people's memories that aren't real,” he says. “Because they don't remember s*** the right way.” Oh? “I mean, somebody gave us a one star review that went on and on and on about this angel hair pasta dish. And I was like, what the hell is that all about? I called Tony [Corricelli]. And he goes: ‘angel hair pasta?! I would never serve that, that's not even Italian, it's American!’ So this person had no clue what they’re talking about. Or we had people being like: ‘I came in here 12 years ago, how could you take so-and-so dish off the menu?’ I’m like: well, we hadn't sold it since you were in here last…”

Today, where you eat and drink, that’s part of your personal brand

Nor has any of this come cheap — Thesleff reckons he’s in for about £1.2million on the refurb (“they hadn’t done anything since 1985!”). But, he says, he wanted to get it right. “When I first took it over [in late 2022], I kept it quite quiet. Because I couldn’t overcome some of it. Those bathrooms! I was just embarrassed by some things.” Those things have been corrected now. “It had to be right. Today, where you eat and drink, it’s part of your personal brand.”

Thesleff’s mother is gone, and his father is too unwell to make the restaurant. “They won’t get to enjoy this,” he says. “Which kind of sucks.” He pauses, then brightens. “But now it’s the restaurant that it was back in the day. I want it to be the spot again.” It may all be new, but there’s a sense, then, that rather than refurbishing, Thesleff has really been time-travelling.

9-15 Pavilion Road, SW1X 0HD, saleepepe.co.uk