Momo is coming back: The Chiltern Firehouse of the nineties is undergoing a revival

Momo is coming back: The Chiltern Firehouse of the nineties is undergoing a revival

If you were on the London party scene in the late Nineties, chances are you know Mourad Mazouz.

At least, you’ll know his North African restaurant, Momo. Either because you’re A-list enough to have eaten, drunk and got up to all kinds of naughty fun in the Mayfair institution (hi, Liam Gallagher, Nicole Kidman and the Rolling Stones) or because you fantasised about being deemed worthy of one of the special Momo key rings that gave you access to the members-only basement bar, where decadent parties played out every night. How decadent? Well, Naomi Campbell and Stella McCartney threw a birthday party for Madonna there days before it opened in 1997. On any given night, Tom Cruise, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert de Niro would be chatting over cocktails and couscous (Mazouz could reasonably claim responsibility for the popularity of the grain in 21st-century London). Chiltern Firehouse, eat your heart out. 

Mourad Mazouz by Ed Miles (Momo) Now Mazouz is reinventing Momo — ‘Basically, I paint everything nude and I start again,’ as he puts it — to inject a bit of that mad Cool Britannia energy back into 2019 London.  We meet at Sketch, his other Mayfair restaurant and a brilliantly bonkers, early Noughties-defining phenomenon in its own right (google ‘Sketch toilets’ if you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting in person). Mazouz doesn’t look like the architect of a pivotal moment in Nineties hedonism. White-haired and cosily bearded, with a rich French accent (Mazouz is from Algeria, with a Parisian mother) the 56-year-old seems as nonplussed about the fuss around his celeb-magnet restaurant as he was that night when Madonna et al were knocking back champagne at Momo. That night Mazouz ended up ‘kicking the photographers at the door because I didn’t understand why they were there’; when aristos such as Zac Goldsmith or Tom Parker-Bowles turned up, he ‘didn’t have a clue’ who they were ‘Basically, just live as much as you can. Up and down and cry and laugh and everything. All that is life and just live it, enjoy it!’ Block quote caption Mazouz seems to have had the sort of charmed life that you might begrudge were it not for the fact that good things have mostly happened because he is so nice. He moved to Paris from Algeria at the age of 15 and, as a dedicated nightlife enthusiast, soon befriended French comedian Smaïn. He then embarked on a semi-permanent gap year, spending his life earning enough money to travel. ‘I was working two to three months in a restaurant making a bit of cash; with the cash I was making I could live maybe 10 months, 12 months abroad in Bali or Goa,’ he says. It was while working at Ma Maison in LA in the 1980s (at a time when Wolfgang Puck was cooking and Dudley Moore and Eddie Murphy were regulars — Mazouz seems to have an unconscious homing instinct for celebrity) that he caught the restaurant bug. When he returned to Paris permanently, aged 26, he decided to open his first restaurant, Au Bascou. ‘I didn’t have the money, so I asked all my friends,’ he smiles. ‘I actually had zero francs and four of them lent me 50,000 [about £7,000], and that’s how I opened the first one.’  Seven years later he opened a second Parisian restaurant, the sceney North African Le 404; a year later the English girl he was dating persuaded him to move to the UK. ‘That’s when I see then the couscous in London is bizarre. I said, “I’m going to do one.”’ In the Mo-ment: from left, Jo Wood, Pam Hogg, Mourad Mazouz, Yasmin Mills and Maddie Mills party downstairs at Momo by Dave Bennett  In 1996, London was ripe both for couscous and for Mazouz, with his infectious enthusiasm for having a bloody good time. (Momo is the nickname given Mazouz by that girlfriend’s very British, country club father.) He joined forces with two blokes he had met at raves — the late Liam Carson, infamous club manager of the Groucho, and Lady Curzon’s son David Ponte — and Momo was born. ‘It has never been about money,’ he says, sincerely. Later in the middle of a heartfelt ramble about the unconscious, he exclaims: ‘Basically, just live as much as you can. Up and down and cry and laugh and everything. All that is life and just live it, enjoy it!’ Much of Momo in the early days was, indeed, done on a wing and a prayer. Madge’s legendary birthday party, for example, was far from a carefully designed PR event. Before properly opening, Mazouz had thrown a friends and family party on a Monday night. ‘On Tuesday I received a phone call from [record producer] Nellee Hooper who asked me, “I came to a party yesterday. I loved it. We want to organise the birthday of Madonna on Friday.” I wasn’t ready so I said, “No, not possible. We’re not open yet and we’re not ready.”’ Carson persuaded Mazouz they could pull it off. ‘At six o’clock, we were literally still hammering the stairs down. After the party there was no more alcohol, no more nothing, no more money!’  Madonna (WireImage) Momo had cemented its position as the hottest place in town, Hollywood Walk of Fame-style. And yet there’s something amazingly uncynical about Mazouz. That members-only basement bar wasn’t a canny marketing ploy to draw the celebs. It was a way of avoiding legal action. One night, after being turned away, ‘someone said, “We will sue you if you don’t let us in.” I was afraid, I didn’t want the bar to have problems, so that’s how it became a members’ club.’ Soon the members’ key rings had become London’s must-have accessory. You’re not likely to see Mossy or De Niro getting mullered at Momo nowadays, however. Celebrities just don’t get publicly drunk, or worse, like they used to. Mazouz suggests that’s the curse of the mobile phone and traceability: back in the Nineties, there were ‘no phones so no photos. There were no rules and everybody was paying cash.’ So what will the new Momo be like, in the age of smartphones and celebs behaving safely? The focus is now less on getting s***faced, more on serious cocktails: Mazouz has poached Erik Lorincz, who won the accolade of Best Bar in the World in 2017 for The Savoy’s American Bar, to launch a high-end cocktail den in the basement, which will be open to all. In the kitchen, Sketch’s former head chef Hervé Deville will be masterminding a revamp of the menu; a Momo Diner, serving breakfast and small plates for the Lululemon-clad wellness crowd will open next door. As the original regulars have grown up, so has Momo. Although if you promise to hide your smartphone, maybe guests at the grand reopening party — Stella, Roland Mouret, Damon Albarn, Damien Hirst, the Jaggers — might just be persuaded to get up to their old tricks again. It is Momo, after all. Momo opens on 18 March. The bar and Mo Diner open later this month (momo.london) More about: | Momo | Chiltern Firehouse | Mourad Mazouz