Game, set, Match

Related tags New york Bar association London License

Jonathan Downey, founder of the Match bar group, is making a name for himself with his forthright views on the industry. Lorna Harrison finds out...

Jonathan Downey, founder of the Match bar group, is making a name for himself with his forthright views on the industry. Lorna Harrison finds out what he thinks about the trade topics of the moment.

London bar owner Jonathan Downey is well known in industry circles for his pioneering work in the bar world. His Match, Player and Milk & Honey bars have secured many awards and are renowned for their great atmosphere, quality drinks and spot-on service.

More recently, Jonathan has been making a bit of a name for himself with his forthright, and sometimes controversial views on the industry. He's fast earning himself a tag as Mr Rent-a-Quote but far from being a bit of puff, his views are being seen as an honest, experienced, educated and passionate view of the industry.

Born and bred in Manchester, Jonathan trained as a lawyer and spent time working in New York and Boston. He returned to London in 1996 to find he was hitting a brick wall when it came to getting served a decent gin and tonic.

"Other than All Bar One and the Groucho club there was nowhere to go," he said. "At that time Manchester had a great bar scene but London suffered as the club scene from the late '80s went straight into restaurants.

"I felt compelled to create a Manchester bar environment with New York service and drinks. I wanted to do away with sloppy service and introduce table waiting and I'd always been interested in the Martini culture."

Still working as a lawyer, Jonathan brought on board cocktail guru Dick Bradsell and Match was born in East London. "It wasn't until we opened in Oxford Circus that everyone went mad and saw us as a great pioneering brand," he said.

There are now three Match bars out of an estate of six. Although Jonathan and Dick parted company three years ago, he employs well-known New York bartender Dale DeGroff as the group's director of drinks, while one of the UK's leading experts on bartending Angus Winchester is currently running Jonathan's Trailer Happiness bar in Notting Hill. The bars are known for their relaxed surroundings and innovative design where people can instantly feel at home. "Although they have a strong individual identity we do position Match as a brand. It's like the BMW of the bar market offering a 5-series saloon, sporty Z4, and X5 all under one umbrella."

And the brand is being recognised around the world. The company is on the move and is looking at opening a Milk & Honey bar in Los Angeles with rooms above for its London members - a move that could be the start of international expansion. Match has also received offers from interested parties to expand into hotels.

"What we are good at is creating and operating good bars. We are not cash-rich but we like to buy freeholds and do what we do best. We have got to the stage where people know that we are great at doing what we do and people are asking us to set up bars."

Jonathan is also starting to use his knowledge to speak for the bar scene. "I've always been reluctant to push myself forward but I have become high profile in the bar world and am making an effort to create a voice."

Through his newly-launched Soho Honey Club he is also hoping to create a body that does have lobbying power. "I want us to contribute to issues and have a voice. We need to have influence on licensing and smoking."

The launch of the Soho Honey Club

The Soho Honey Club is Jonathan's new initiative to bring together like-minded bar, club, hotel and restaurant owners for social and business reasons. Members are encouraged to meet at the club on Monday nights and have access to a number of trade incentives and discounts.

"The aim is that we can create a new voice for London businesses and eventually have lobby power," said Jonathan.

Further details are available on:

Jonathan Downey on...

  • Licensing:

"Licensing is corrupt. Local authorities have too much power, there's no transparency or negotiation - it's like dealing with traffic wardens," says Jonathan.

The bar boss has come up against problems with the notoriously difficult Westminster Council and has just joined the Westminster Licensees' Association to make a stand.

"Local authorities should be working with us to manage licensing sensibly.

"If Westminster wants to limit the number of licences then that's fine but take the licences off the people who are not running places properly and give them to those that do.

"I am struggling with licensing reform and think costs and red tape are likely to reduce but it could be good for the odd pub who wants to open an extra hour."


Jonathan has trialled no smoking by converting the basement floor of Milk & Honey into a no-smoking area. A third of The Player is no smoking.

"The Player experiment has not worked. The air atmosphere is better but the bar atmosphere is not the same.

"I have never smoked but I don't want to be told what to do and I am a big fan of choice. Smoking bans would be a real problem. California has had a ban for ages and there is no bar culture. New York has lost its soul and has become bland.

"This government is obsessed by sneaky taxation and inappropriate legislation. We are not like America. We are more individual and cannot be bossed around. A ban will push sensible reasonable people into taking things into their own hands creating business vigilantes who won't accept it."

Customer service:

"I don't think British service is too bad anymore. You get surly service in France and siesta service in Spain. People do seem to be making more of an effort.

"We are trying to create a tipping culture. We have no optional service charge and encourage customers to tip accordingly. We have just got slammed with a back-bill from the Inland Revenue for leaving a space on credit card slips.

"We didn't take off the PAYE before passing on the tips and have a huge bill which we're currently negotiating to settle.

"It's important that customers get a local feel - a smile, a greeting - being offered a seat. There's a lot of New York values in our bars."

Related topics Other operators

Property of the week


£ 60,000 - Leasehold

Busy location on coastal main road Extensively renovated detached public house Five trade areas (100)  Sizeable refurbished 4-5 bedroom accommodation Newly created beer garden (125) Established and popular business...

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more