Tim Allen on Sōlō: The North of England is full of 'unassuming places for world-class restaurants'

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Chef Tim Allen is two weeks away from opening his Aughton restaurant, Sōlō.

He interrupted his work in the backyard to talk to me, where he had been bending scrap metal for the bar. I asked if he was alone - he laughed. Very much so.

"I think I've just pulled the muscle in my bicep," he chuckled, in good spirits despite working to a tight schedule. 

So far just the kitchen is in situ, and while on paper it might sound like there's a lot to get done, the chef knows he'll get it over the line.

"We are going to get there," he said. "In the next ten days it is going to rapidly increase. The fit-out gets in on Monday, I've just painted the bar area, and we've got a solid brass bar that I've spent the day angle-grinding that looks the bollocks.

Then will come the bar fridge, the cellaring, the lines and ice machines, ready just in time for the restaurant opening early November.

"Am I nervous? Of course I am,” he laughed. “If I wasn't, I think there'd be a concern." 

Bootstrap on a shoestring

Although, in his words, the chef had to 'beg borrow and steal' to get Sōlō ready, he has done so for a fraction of the cost it might have cost.

Made possible thanks to project managers Peter Miles and Ian Gaskill, as well as Karen Miles overseeing design, Tim recently returned from a stint working at Ardfin on the Isle of Jura in the knowledge that Sōlō was in good, budget-savvy hands.

"Peter’s vision and Karen’s eye for the real fabric of its look and feel are what made this happen," he said, "not to mention Ian, who very importantly makes sure we get the figures right."

"We've probably spent on this entire operation less than what most people spend on a kitchen," he said, having forked out £200,000, "and I'm proud that we've done it that way."

 "I don't want to open dragged down by debt from minute one - it makes it impossible to focus on the product." 

Ultimately, he said, "it is about progress not perfection. And what is perfection exactly, £150 dinner plates?" 

"I did the whole crockery range here including tea and coffee for 1,600 quid. Handmade. That's the way forward for me," he said.

Though he would love to have beautiful glassware from day one, he said, 'that'll come in time.' What are people going to do? Go, 'oh no, I'm not drinking out of a such and such glass?'" 

"We'd have easily spent two and a half times as much on this project if we'd gone about it any other way. And why would we do that? 

“Let's make this sing and then let's regroup and once we've got some confidence in the numbers of what we're doing and what it looks like as an operation and business. Then we can start making some decisions." 

From a private dining room to four potential guest rooms upstairs, as well as a 30-seat terrace to fit out in the spring, he said, "There's a lot of scope here."

"We seem to have a lot of demand for reservations," he added most innocently - with bookings for Christmas already sold out, the system was flooded with requests for tables as soon as it went live on Wednesday morning.

The rise of the North

It's been a tough year for the chef, but by facing his own demons, he has returned with a drive to create something truly great. 

"It's given me a really clear perspective and a really clear head on what I'm doing," he said. 

For the first time, he feels like the project is a true reflection of his own vision. "It is coherent. Before, I've done stuff and made it work, but were they truly coherent? Probably not." 

Tim has a great support network around him - from other chefs like Michael Wignall, whose kitchen he bought, and towards whom he has nothing but gratitude, or Mark Birchall, who has gladly given him advice and assistance since he decided to set forth with the project.

"He's well up for us being down here," he said, not that Moor Hall or The Barn are struggling for business, "but the more that their stakes elevate, the more our stakes elevate and grow - it's just beneficial all round." 

"The industry is very competitive, but with the right kind of competition, when you drive each other to do well, that's a positive. You want to push each other on - that's the whole point."

Great local restaurants do seem to be multiplying in the area, from Mana to Raby Hunt to Hjem and Moor Hall, all in what Tim describes as "unassuming places for world-class restaurants." 

"But these restaurants are there and they're popping up more and more." Hopefully his will be one of them. 


Tim still has some rather important positions to fill at the restaurant,  and may well end up resorting to temporary staff to get through Christmas, but in the long run, he wants his business to revolve around its team.

"Sōlō for me is about being stable on all fronts," he said. 

The chef intends on giving his senior team the means to buy into the business, on the premise that the better the business does, the better they do. 

"Ultimately, why else are they going to work for me? They're not just going to work for me because I'm Tim Allen. So what?" 

"It's meaningless. You've got to have stability, they've got to have a life of their own, they've got to be able to grow, they need to buy houses, they need to do all of those things and how is that going to happen? 

"Yes it means you need to be busy, but that's the plan isn't it? It's a restaurant, we want to be full everyday."

When challenged about his decision to take on a head chef, he said, "yeah, they're going to come and eat my food, it's me that they can see standing at the kitchen pass every day. 

"That arrogance, that self-driven ego is just nonsense," he said, "and this is coming from a man with great past experience in ego."

"I want this place to do well, but I don't want it to be done on those principles anymore. I want it to be done on the right principles." 

"Restaurants are about we, not I, if you think it's 'me, me, me,' you're going to be sat on your own."

Time to crack on

Guests and press have expressed enthusiasm and trepidation for Sōlō to open - and it's hard to blame them. Tim is excited too, even though he knows it's going to be a case of building up the business from the ground up.

"We will make mistakes when we open, but I personally need to feel the business, I need to be operating, and then I'm quick to action changes," he said, and he has a tried-and-tested method to do so.

"The first 90 days in a business, you write every single thing down that comes into your head, because that's when you're really absorbing it at a very high rate - you see every imperfection, you see everything that can be improved."

"I've done it in every single place that I've been to, then gone back to that and carried on working through that list for the 90 days after, work at it as hard as you can, resolve as many of those as you can so by month six you've ironed out the problems." 

Further down the line, Tim does want to be more than just afloat: he wants Sōlō to be excellent. "Of course we've got aspirations for Sōlō, but key focus number one is to be commercially viable." 

With nothing but his own self-judgement to grapple with, he said, “it’s live by the sword, die by the sword, produce the results." 

“Now it's time to crack on. I'm looking forward to it, I'm excited. I am sh****g myself," as deadlines loom and the feeling of unpreparedness is hard to shake, "but I have to look at it and decide what I'm going to do about it. That's where my thinking is at right now." 

"I'll find a way - I've never not found a way yet."

In these challenging times…

The Staff Canteen team are taking a different approach to keeping our website independent and delivering content free from commercial influence. Our Editorial team have a critical role to play in informing and supporting our audience in a balanced way. We would never put up a paywall and restrict access – The Staff Canteen is open to all and we want to keep bringing you the content you want; more from younger chefs, more on mental health, more tips and industry knowledge, more recipes and more videos. We need your support right now, more than ever, to keep The Staff Canteen active. Without your financial contributions this would not be possible.

Over the last 12 years, The Staff Canteen has built what has become the go-to platform for chefs and hospitality professionals. As members and visitors, your daily support has made The Staff Canteen what it is today. Our features and videos from the world’s biggest name chefs are something we are proud of. We have over 500,000 followers across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other social channels, each connecting with chefs across the world. Our editorial and social media team are creating and delivering engaging content every day, to support you and the whole sector - we want to do more for you.

A single coffee is more than £2, a beer is £4.50 and a large glass of wine can be £6 or more.

Support The Staff Canteen from as little as £1 today. Thank you.

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 17th October 2021

Tim Allen on Sōlō: The North of England is full of 'unassuming places for world-class restaurants'