Bringing a flavour of Broadway glitz to town’s restaurant scene
Jersey-born actress Tonicha Lawrence has drawn on her theatrical background to create Ruby’s, a bar and bistro with a cabaret twist. She spoke to Tom Ogg
It is usually the case that stars of stage and screen work in hospitality first and then land a career in film or TV.
From Amy Adams (waitress) and Bruce Willis (bartender) to Madonna (the future Material Girl was fired from Dunkin’ Donuts for upsetting a customer), the list of celebs who spent time working in bars and restaurants prior to their big break is as long as... well, as long as the gooey stream of doughnut jelly that Madonna squirted over the aforementioned customer.
Tonicha Lawrence, however, is an exception to the rule.
A national TV star at the age of 19, the Jersey-born actress is known for her role as the doomed Linda Fowler in Emmerdale and, more recently, as the dastardly Steph Sims in Casualty. Meanwhile, her 16-year-old daughter, Sydney Wade, has thus far appeared in the hit TV series Wolfblood and acted alongside the likes of Jude Law, Rachel Weisz and Benedict Cumberbatch in such films as The Damned United (2009), Fernando Meirelles’ 360 (2011) and last year’s big-budget sci-fi fantasy I Kill Giants.
Now, however, Tonicha has returned to Jersey to open Ruby’s Lounge and Bistro, a St Helier-based bar and restaurant in which cookery-loving Sydney will be working in the kitchen. Suffice to say, the pair haven’t entirely set aside their thespian talents.
‘The idea for Ruby’s was born out of a successful cabaret theatre show I did five years ago,’ explains Tonicha, chatting in Ruby’s’ 1920s-style champagne lounge. ‘It was a “theatre dinner” evening in Leeds, which is where [drama school] Tonicha Lawrence Academy was then based. It went so well – the tickets all sold out within half an hour – that it convinced me to create a permanent base for a theatre bar and restaurant.’
The resultant film-themed establishment is situated in the former Tipsy Toad/Town House pub, which is a listed building outside but not inside, meaning that Tonicha and her team have had free rein to refurbish as they’ve seen fit.
‘A lot of people I’ve spoken to have told me how they had their first kiss in the Tipsy or celebrated their 18th birthday in the Town House,’ she says. ‘As such, I knew the building had a lot of happy memories for a lot of people, and I didn’t want to take those memories away, so although we’ve refurbished the interior, we haven’t made it unrecognisable.’
Nevertheless, the transformation is startling, with the former inn now divided into individual sections, each of which is loosely based on a different genre of film.
‘The lounge area is in the style of The Great Gatsby, with ales, beers and original 1920s cocktails with a modern twist,’ says Tonicha. ‘We have ex-Victoria College student and actor Nathan Le Blancq overseeing the bar and he is so passionate. He’s been attending mixology workshops and seeking advice and tips from expect mixologists.’
Elsewhere, there is the Dr Strangelove-referencing War Room (‘It looks like the sort of room where Churchill might have made his decisions,’ says Tonicha) and The Naughty Room, which Tonicha says is her personal favourite.
‘The Naughty Room is styled on the sort of underground speakeasies that were popular with the Mafia and Al Capone during the Prohibition era. It has that look of where gangsters would have gone to count their money, with the lamps and the dark red walls. The Godfather is my absolute all-time favourite trilogy in the world.’
Meanwhile, there is the ‘theatre area’, which has lights fitted by professional lighting designers, while local artist Steph Newington has produced a variety of artworks which are on display throughout the building.
‘We are also going to have live entertainment, with dance and singing performances from Broadway, cabaret, country, jazz, Motown and more,’ says Tonicha. ‘I must have re-read the licensing terms about 80,000 times to see whether there is a law about singing on Sundays, but so far I haven’t found anything...’
When it came to hiring, Tonicha knew she would need waiters and waitresses who were also talented actors and singers, and, not surprisingly, she assumed such multi-talented individuals would be in short supply.
‘It was the total opposite,’ she laughs. ‘We were absolutely inundated with applications. It was far harder to find kitchen staff, funnily enough, although we’ve now put together a great team.’
Leading the team is head chef Justin Saunders, who began his culinary career helping out in his family’s seaside bistro, and who has since worked under the likes of Marco Pierre White, Conrad Gallagher and Nico Ladenis. Much like Tonicha, Justin was born and raised in Jersey, but has only recently returned to the Island after many years working in the UK.
‘Justin was desperate to give something back to Jersey. He has a really good ethos in terms of recycling and wanting to create minimum waste, and he only wants to use fresh food in his cooking, without having to rely on storing frozen food in fridges and freezers.’
Among the dishes on Justin’s eye-catching menu are salt-baked celeriac, pickled radish, almond milk mousse and candied walnuts (starter), siren ‘Ryesing Tides’ beer-battered haddock and triple-cooked chips (main) and chocolate ‘bomb’ with Jersey milk espuma, ice cream, honeycomb and hot toffee sauce (dessert).
In addition, there is also a wide selection of sharing platters on offer, which Tonicha describes as ‘hot pots where families and friends can sit and nibble’.
‘We will also be extending the last orders for food because we want Ruby’s to be a theatre bar and restaurant where, if someone has just left a play at the Arts Centre or Opera House, they can pop in here for something to eat. And the performers, too, as they likely won’t have eaten. It makes you sleepy if you eat before going on stage.’
And Tonicha would know, having been a professional actress since her teens and having taught and trained hundreds of young actors at her Tonicha Lawrence Academy (her sister is Drama Lab founder Pippa Adams).
Yet despite her acting success in the UK, Tonicha says she never stopped thinking about her childhood home and was more than happy to return to the Island last year. ‘I couldn’t wait to get back. Jersey just has a pull, doesn’t it? It is good for the soul.’
The mother-of-three – Lorcan, Tonicha’s eldest, is a professional choreographer, while JCG student Ava wants to be an author and illustrator – returned to Jersey with the express aim of founding Ruby’s, although at first she was unsure where it would be located.
‘I was having a conversation in the hairdressers and talking about how much I wanted to do something like Ruby’s, and someone overheard me and said, “Oh, that’s weird, because the Town House has just become available”. Fast forward two months and I’d signed the lease – it happened that quickly.’
As soon as Sydney heard about the venture, she immediately expressed her interest in getting involved.
‘Sydney loves cooking,’ says her proud mum. ‘She wants to do everything. Last year she was at the Canada Film Festival, now she’s studying A-level culinary.’
It was thanks to her teenage daughter that Tonicha resumed her acting career in 2016 after Sydney landed a role in Casualty and encouraged her mum to sign up to play her on-screen mother.
‘She said to me, “Can you go for it, mum?” I said, “No way!” But then they offered me the part. My character ended up running someone off the edge of a cliff.’
There is, says Tonicha, little difference between the stamina required to perform in a play and that needed to open a restaurant.
‘Oh, I would say opening Ruby’s has been no different to putting on a live theatre show,’ she laughs. ‘A good way to lose weight is to put on a show or open a restaurant because you’re constantly on your feet, you don’t sleep and you don’t eat. But, somehow, despite everything, it all comes together at the end.’
- Ruby’s Lounge and Bistro is now open in New Street.