Following a finance deal for almost £1m and a rapid expansion period for his Bon Vivant Group, Stuart McCluskey sits down with Imbibe to discuss the launch of what is, perhaps, his most ambitious project to date
The newly opened Lady Libertine is located on the prestigious St Andrew Square in Edinburgh's city centre, where she rubs shoulders with the likes of big hitters Wahaca, Dishoom, Drake & Morgan and Hawksmoor. The sixth venue from Scottish bartender-turned-entrepreneur Stuart McCluskey, it covers 4,500sq ft over two floors of the imposing, art-deco Edinburgh Grand.
‘We’re the only independent operator [in St Andrew Square] among all the London big boys,’ McCluskey tells Imbibe. ‘It’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure.’
Lady Libertine is a bit of a goer, comprising an all-day venue and wine café on the ground floor and a music-focused cocktail bar in the basement, which opens till 3am. The 150-cover establishment is co-located with The Register Club, which McCluskey launched last summer on the fourth floor of the building.
‘I don’t think there’s anything like [Lady Libertine] in Edinburgh, even within our own group,’ says McCluskey. ‘The concept was born out of what I believe to be a gap in the market for a really good all-day, all-night venue.’
McCluskey describes the ground floor as being ‘more ladylike’. Open from breakfast, it’ll serve homemade pastries and mezze dishes inspired by North African, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. As well as a constantly evolving list of 10 wines, it will offer a concise cocktail menu focused on lower-abv drinks.
Downstairs, things get ‘a bit sexier and more atmospheric’ with pared-back industrial design features, subdued lighting and a big focus on music. Names lined up to play in Lady Libertine include renowned Manchester DJ Luke Unabomber and London-based Jonny Drop.
‘It’s open from midday through to 3am and it’s a grown-up place to go, let your hair down and have a bit of fun in a nice environment that’s not a club and your feet aren’t sticking to the floor,’ McCluskey explains.
‘We’re working with some local music talent and bringing people in from all over the country and beyond.’
The venue will be managed by Colin Hart, who ran McCluskey’s flagship venue The Bon Vivant a number of years ago and, more recently, ran Ondine on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge.
A burgeoning empire
Lady Libertine is the third in a string of recent launches from McCluskey’s Bon Vivant Group, following a finance deal last year from Allied Irish for almost £1m to support its extensive growth plans. New additions to the portfolio include a second iteration of Mexican cantina concept El Cartel in Teviot Place and the aforementioned Register Club.
With a number of London operators entering the Edinburgh hospitality scene, competition for space is hotter than ever, according to McCluskey.
‘It’s understandable, given that rents and rates are increasing all the time in London,’ he says. ‘It’s a similar demographic here, but on a smaller scale, and there’s really interesting, beautiful buildings that they can develop.’
He credits his business partner Chris Stewart, who owns The Edinburgh Grand, for the opportunity to launch a project of Lady Libertine's size and stature.
‘Part of the attraction of going into business with Chris… is I get first dibs on spaces where I shouldn’t even be able to compete,’ McCluskey says. ‘We’ve had to become more corporate in our outlook – this time next year we’ll be a £10m business, so I’ve had to really adapt to be able to operate at this level.
‘What I’ve learnt in this last year or so has been pretty intense – stuff that they don’t teach you when you’re learning to make Woo Woos in Brown’s in 2002,’ he adds ruefully.
While McCluskey says he'll be focusing on fine-tuning his three new venues in the first half of 2019, he seems to have found the ideal business partner in Stewart.
'These big companies coming up [from London] have got bigger resources and can pay more – some of them have been respectful of the local communities, others haven't,' he says. '[But] Chris has got a really strong drive to leave a positive legacy on the skyline of Edinburgh. He'll take on things that a lot of operators wouldn't touch because they're too difficult or expensive.'