If you haven’t yet eaten in Comptoir Libanais, get it on your London restaurant to-do list. With hot and cold mezze platters, fresh salads and steaming tagines served in a souk-like setting, they provide Lebanese dining that’s vibrant yet authentic.
Oh So London was lucky enough to find out about this unique family of restaurants from the founder himself, Tony Kitous. He told us about his upbringing in Algeria selling sardine sandwiches as a child, the concepts behind Middle Eastern cooking and the thinking behind Comptoir Libanais.
Hi Tony. Your mum was a huge influence on the food you ate growing up in Algeria. What were the typical dishes she’d prepare for you?
My mum would cook all sorts of different dishes when we were growing up. I used to watch her and my aunts prepare food for hours in the kitchen and then my cousins and I would come in and devour it so quickly as it always tasted so amazing! She would cook grilled meats marinated in lots of different herbs and spices. Salads were also very consistent dishes on the table – the ingredients were always so fresh and delicious. Stuffed artichoke hearts or tomatoes with spiced lamb in tomato sauce was a favourite of mine – she would make this a lot for family gatherings.
When did you first arrive in London and what was it about this city that you loved?
I arrived when I was 18 years old. I loved – and still love – the buzz of the city. There’s so much going on, so much to see and inspiration all around me. The restaurant scene has always been a real draw as it’s so cosmopolitan. That’s how I realised how much everyone would love Lebanese food as it was one of the only countries that wasn’t very well represented from a culinary perspective.
Did you always know you wanted to get into the restaurant industry? What was it that spurred you on to create your own restaurant?
I’ve grown up with hospitality – it’s in my blood. Middle Eastern and Algerian mothers take it very seriously when they have guests round – they ensure there’s a huge spread on the table and an abundance of food! No one ever leaves hungry! I learnt quite quickly that I wanted to work in this field, ever since I was a little boy selling sardine sandwiches outside the stadium to football fans every Saturday. When I came to London, I could see that the westerners weren’t really very well informed of Lebanese and Middle Eastern food and saw a gap in the market and a real opportunity to showcase not only our food but our culture too.
How long did it take you to create the ‘vision’ for Comptoir Libanais and what’s the key ethos across your restaurants?
It’s an idea that had been brewing in my mind for some time, ever since I moved to London. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s food that’s affordable and easy to know – healthy, light and you can enjoy it every day of the week. Comptoir Libanais means ‘Lebanese counter’ and that’s exactly what it is: somewhere you can eat casually, with no fuss. You don’t have to sacrifice comfort, style or authenticity of food just because the dining is casual. I opened a few other concepts first whilst I was exploring and understanding the restaurant scene in London. When I was ready, I opened my first Comptoir Libanais in Westfield London in 2008, quickly followed by Wigmore St. I started the Comptoir with the view of serving hungry Londoners great Lebanese mezze that can be casually shared whilst sharing stories. I’m thankful to see that it’s snowballed since them due to my guests enjoying the food and the experience as a whole. Luckily, they kept coming back!
Why did you decide to focus on Lebanese food? Is it similar to the Algerian cuisine you grew up with?
Lebanese food and Algerian food are very similar. Everyone stakes claim to having the best grilled meats, the best fattoush salads etc. At the end of the day, everyone borrows recipes from one another and make little improvements here and there. I chose Lebanese food as I saw a real gap for it and knew it would go down well.
Does the menu have any Western influences to suit London diners?
Yes of course. I have worked hard to create a menu that is authentic and true to Lebanese and Middle Eastern cuisine, whilst appealing to the Western palate. Our grilled meats go down very well. We luckily haven’t had to change too much as Londoners are always open to trying things and we have such a variety on the menu, there’s always something for everyone.
What’s the must-try dish on the menu?
The mezze platter for sure! It’s a great sharing dish for two that allows our guests to try lots of different aspects of Lebanese cuisine; from the falafel to the sambousek and fresh salads it all tastes delicious! The fattoush salad is also very popular, as are our wraps.
What are the stand-out things about your restaurants which customers particularly love?
We work hard to find and employ the best teams. We want our guests to feel like they are popping over to a friend’s house for dinner so the friendly and casual yet efficient style of service must reflect that. We also get a lot of compliments on the design – we use bright colours, brushed chrome, patterned tiles that remind me of my childhood as well as graphic prints of Chiclets and of course Sirine! Sirine is our beacon – she’s the pretty face whose smile you’ll see in everything we do. We also have floor to ceiling shelves of merchandise including handwoven bags, silver teapots, those hard-to-get ingredients as well as our brand new Comptoir HOME range which includes things like vintage trays, herb tins, mugs, tagines and more…
What do you think about the food scene in London – is there anything you really like or find particularly unique and do you find it a competitive place to survive in?
I love how fast paced it is. There are so many new openings all the time. It’s competitive of course, but we find that we have a lot of loyalty from our regular guests as well as strong word of mouth recommendations. It’s a really exciting place to be, plus Londoners know their food and ingredients, so restaurants can’t make any shortcuts which really separates the good from the bad. There is so much focus on allergens these days which has helped us really become top of our game when it comes to food knowledge, both in the restaurants and also on our website.
What do you like doing in London when you’re not busy with the restaurants?
I spend a lot of time with my family – I’m lucky to be part of a close knit family so we are always together and I’m always thankful for that. I also like to work out a lot. I try to maintain a high level of fitness at all times and am often training for an ultra-marathon, something I do for charities that are close to my heart.
Do you have any exciting new developments which you can share?
The Comptoir HOME range that I previously mentioned is really exciting. It’s available to buy in all of our restaurants and proving to be very popular. I designed it myself with the Comptoir guest in mind. I wanted something bright, useful but that would tell a story. They’re real conversation pieces due to their originality. I’m also working on my third book. It’s going to focus on healthy, vegetarian food that’s quick and easy to make. All the while, my business partner and I are continually looking for new sites that we can move into. We’re opening in Manchester in autumn and look forward to other openings in the pipeline too. Watch this space!
Huge thanks to Tony for taking part in this Q&A for Oh So London. To find out more about Comptoir Libanais and to find your nearest restaurant, visit their website ComptoirLibanais.com, follow them on twitter @ComptoirLibanai, on insta @Comptoirlibanais and find them on Facebook.
Until next time x