Matthew Mooney looks back on 40 years of the Belle Epoque in Knutsford
PUBLISHED: 11:30 11 December 2013 | UPDATED: 11:30 11 December 2013
As Belle Epoque in Knutsford has celebrated 40 years in fine dining, proprietor Matthew Mooney looks back and forward to an exciting future
Forty years on from its opening, Knutsford’s Belle Epoque Brasserie remains a very special place; a unique destination of choice for people celebrating very special occasions.
So much so that it is difficult to imagine the landmark Art Nouveau Gaskell Memorial Tower and former Kings Coffee House in King Street - the work of that, shall we say eccentric, Edwardian architect Richard Harding Watt who left such a stamp on the town - without the Belle Epoque occupying it. Neither is it conceivable that the Belle Epoque could exist anywhere else. But perhaps most remarkable of all, it is impossible to think of the Belle Epoque under the stewardship of anyone other than members of the Mooney family.
And yet, ironically, neither of the two generations of the family that has run the restaurant for virtually all of those four decades came to do so by design.
The story began in the early 1970s when Malcolm Mooney - business partner of the world’s first footballing superstar George Best- and his French-born wife Dominique set up the Borsalino in Hale Barns. Nephew Matthew Mooney, current proprietor of the Belle Epoque, smiles when he describes the bistro, named after the uber-cool French gangster movie starring Alan Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. ‘It was a 1970s’ take on French style,’ he says, ‘all red gingham tablecloths with French onion soup, steak au poivre and escargots described on a franglais menu.’
La Belle Epoque Restaurant Francaise, however, launched by the couple in 1973, was a much grander affair amid the period splendour of the former King’s Coffee House. But the ambitious project was dealt a tragic blow almost from the outset when Malcolm was killed in a road accident within six months. It survived when Malcolm’s twin brother Keith and his wife Nerys decided to step in, though neither had any experience of running a restaurant. Keith, Matthew’s father, ran a silk screen printing business and his mum Nerys was a housewife.
‘You can imagine what a culture shock suddenly running a restaurant must have been for them,’ Matthew says today. ‘But they grew and developed the business through the 1970s and 1980s during the era of haute cuisine and La Belle Epoque’s reputation came to be recognised far and wide.’
So did its fame as an unlikely venue for some of the greatest jazz artists of the period. ‘The jazz evenings developed into three-day parties,’ said Matthew. ‘What basically began as a marketing exercise saw artists like Stéphane Grappelli, George Melly and Georgie Fame play here and Humphrey Lyttleton was a regular in the run up to Christmas. He played here for my dad’s 40th birthday.’
Fashions and fortunes, however, change - and in the recession of the 1980s and the going became tough. Matthew, who was working in advertising and marketing at the time, said: ‘We decided to rebrand as the Belle Epoque Brasserie and become less formal. The local paper said we had dropped the ‘la-de-dah’, which I thought was quite good.’
But fate was again destined to play its hand. As the Belle Epoque Brasserie celebrated its 25th anniversary, Matthew’s father suffered a stroke. ‘I was just about to join a major advertising agency in Edinburgh, but it was evident that my mum was struggling on her own. I sat down with her and we came to an arrangement whereby I took on the business, which at the time was around six months from going out of existence. Things had to change so I set out to reinvigorate it.
‘This is an incredible building; it doesn’t lend itself practically, but creatively and in a way the impracticalities are part of the charm. It’s all about celebration, whether it’s a 21st birthday, a first date in a ‘proper restaurant’, all the way through to weddings.’
Celebration was definitely the theme when a picture of Matthew, glass of Champagne Belle Epoque in hand, featured on the front cover of a recent issue of Cater and Hotelkeeper, the industry’s journal, which ran his profile. And weddings are now a key part of the Belle Epoque’s business.
‘We have always hosted weddings but early on they were just wedding breakfasts. Getting a civil licence was a major change and we invested in the Garden Room and Paillard’s Room - which doubled as the restaurant in Paris when scenes from Brideshead Revisited were filmed here. We now host 120 weddings a year.’
After selling the Duke of Portland, his pub in Lach Denis, Matthew revealed: ‘I thought I’d buy a Bentley and just drive around Europe. But after a few weeks I was bored senseless. I hate sitting back and doing nothing, I have to be involved.
‘I had long coveted the Rose and Crown next door and we took it on six months ago and it has surpassed our expectations. I’ve built a new management team and I see the Rose and Crown and the Belle Epoque as a total entity and the next five years will see us build on what we have achieved.
‘We don’t have to meet shareholder targets; we don’t have to expand at a rate of knots. Our business plan is to make sure the customers are happy. We have a very loyal clientele, but you have to evolve in this business - regenerate every now and then like Dr Who - making what we do relevant to new customers from a new generation.’
Look out for full coverage of the Belle Epoque 40th Birthday party in the January 2014 issue