LONDON | The Hippodrome Casino in the heart of London’s Leicester Square is an interesting prospect. London, indeed the UK, is not a place where you’ll find the big resort style venues that are commonly associated with casinos. Instead it’s smaller venues like this where gaming occurs. We’re not big gamblers at The City Lane but on a tip-off from a friend we were alerted to what is arguably one of the best steak houses in London, the Heliot Steak House, which is housed inside the Hippodrome building. We had a very impressive meal at Heliot Steak House (you can read our review here) and had a chat with CEO Simon Thomas to learn more about the non-gaming side of the Hippodrome Casino.
The Hippodrome has such a long history. What is your favourite era for the building?
Well, I have to say the 13th July, 2012, onwards. This is the date the Hippodrome opened its doors again after seven years of negotiation, planning and building the UK’s biggest casino. But to be fair, every era of the Hippodrome has been magnificent. It has always been renowned for bringing something new and daring to London’s entertainment scene.
It opened in January 1900 with Charlie Chaplin in the chorus of the first production. The Hippodrome started life as an indoor circus with high diving dwarfs plunging from the minstrel’s gallery above the main auditorium into a 100,000 gallon pool 60ft below. Live elephants and lions would be paraded on stage.
Other incarnations down the years saw the UK premier of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Julie Andrews made her stage debut here, and jazz was first heard here. It’s been a long list of firsts and exclusives, up to the halcyon days of Talk Of The Town, the world’s most famous and prestigious ‘dinner and a show’ club which saw the biggest stars appear in huge productions.
Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jnr, Nina Simone, Sir Bruce Forsyth, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones all appeared here, then it was transformed by Peter Stringfellow into the country’s first ‘super club’. It has always at the epicentre of the UK’s entertainment scene, and I am privileged to be a part of that history.
The majority of your professional life has been spent in the gaming industry. What do you enjoy about overseeing a restaurant?
Hospitality is a significant part of any gaming business. I have for many years run venues with an F&B service, but to be honest Heliot Steak House is leagues ahead in terms of location, environment and quality of food. The USDA prime steak we insist on is obviously an enormous part of the restaurant’s success too.
What have been your biggest gambles?
It’s a toss up between marrying a half-Irish, half-Italian wife; or taking on a project the size of the Hippodrome which involved years of sleepless nights. Both have proved to be life-changing and the most wonderful experiences one man is too fortunate to have had.
You’ve said the decision to serve USDA beef was made after a blind taste test comparing British against American beef. Can you share with us bit more detail about the challenge? Was it a close call?
I was quite resolute in the Hippodrome being an iconic English venue which served English meat in its restaurant. My chef kept insisting that USDA prime steak was better than English and after a ‘yes it is, no it isn’t’ battle I challenged hi to prove his point with a taste off with three main cuts – rib eye, sirloin and fillet.
The steaks – with the English meat supplied by a fantastic farm in Hereford – were all served medium rare. It was not a close competition. The USDA prime was outstanding and it does not surprise me when I see so many reviews from people saying it was the best steak they have ever tasted.
What is the biggest challenge for Heliot Steak House. How do you change people’s perceptions about what a casino restaurant is?
When we opened no-one knew we even had a restaurant here. Remember, casinos in the UK have always been places for the ultra-high rollers or pushed into back alleys. But the government changed the law, and allowed casinos to move into the mainstream, become places where people could have a fun night out – and we are the best example of this. We’ve followed the Vegas formula and made sure everyone knows the restaurant is open to everyone, not just those who use the tables. And it’s the best value steak in the West End. The three major awards we have won help of course.
What’s next for the Hippodrome?
We’ve only just celebrated our third birthday – we’re still a baby, but a baby that is growing up quickly. We have ambitious plans and having huge amounts of fun implementing them.
Check out our post on the meal we had at Heliot Steak House to find out more about the dining experience here.