Poised to open Maray's third restaurant in Liverpool, co-founder Tom White talks to Confidential

There are some bars and restaurants in Liverpool that require absolutely no introduction. If I told you I’m talking about one of the coolest places in town, arguably the pioneer of delicious small plates in the city and one that shakes up a mean Sloe Steamboat, you’d instantly know I was talking about Maray. 

It’s about how are we’re going to do things differently, not how we’re going to be bigger or better than anybody else. That’s the approach we want to take

You’re probably also well aware that these guys are on the brink of opening a brand new venue in the Royal Albert Dock, so we wanted to touch base with Maray to get a bit nostalgic over where it all began, wax lyrical about the Liverpool independent scene and tap into their great big plans for the future.

Where was the idea for Maray born?

TW: “The name comes from a part of Paris called Le Marais. It’s a knot of streets just behind the Bastille which we’d been to a few times and absolutely loved it. We knew then that we wanted to open a cocktail bar or restaurant just like the ones here. There’s a road called Rue de Rosiere, which is just full of little bars and restaurants and the best falafels. It’s like a mecca. We wanted to bring the atmosphere and the Middle Eastern and North African flavours of Le Marais back home. The best falafel we had was at L’As du Fallafel and we wanted to create something just like it - the best falafel in Liverpool. So we did.  “Falafel and cocktails” that was our first strap line, our original USP.”

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The Maray team back in 2014
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The inspiration - Maray las du Falafel in Paris

Would you ever consider taking Maray over to Paris?

TW: “Well, I mean, that would be the most insanely cool thing ever. There are no plans to yet but never say never…”

We delve a little deeper into Maray’s affinity with tastes of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Tom was keen to stress that they try to keep their menu as loose and experimental as possible, so as not to be pigeonholed. “My business partner, James, has done a lot of travelling,” he said, “and his mum has owned a few cafes, so our dishes are mostly inspired by our discovery of Paris but also James’ passion for travel and culture. Every dish which comes over the pass here is just food, flavours, spice and produce they love to cook”. 

By their own admission, when Maray first opened on Bold Street back in 2014, the menu was much more basic. “It actually tickles me”, Tom said, “that we managed to get away with serving that little food”. As the brand built up its ever-expanding fan base and eventually spilled out into a second restaurant in the southern suburbs of the city (on Allerton Road) the offering has matured and refined almost beyond recognition. 

That said, there has been one dish which stole the hearts of Maray diners from the very beginning and has become a bit of a local legend over the years - the ‘Disco Cauli’ - a picturesque head of roasted cauliflower crowed with tahini, yoghurt, harissa, flaked almonds and pomegranate seeds. So, I had to ask…

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Disco cauli

Whose idea was the famous Disco Cauli?

TW: “All credit has to go to Chris who was one of our chefs at the time. Yeah, it was either 2014 or maybe a little bit after. It was a special which just took off but obviously the recipe has been refined since then. It has become a bit of a Maray mascot!”

Why do you think people love the Disco Cauli so much?

TW: “Well, first and foremost it’s so fucking delicious. I think it just caught people’s imagination. Then there’s the visual aspect and the theatrical elements too. It’s got height and it’s so colourful. There’s a lot going on but it just works.”

Lovers of the Disco Cauli and Maray’s signature flavours and finesse will be chuffed to hear that the new Royal Albert Dock restaurant will be boasting the same core food menu and cocktail list. The same edible motifs will be carried across all three venues, except on the specials’ boards, which will vary from restaurant to restaurant. When I asked him if we could expect anything different from the new restaurant Tom said, “we know what we’re good at” but explained that each chef in each kitchen - from commis to head - is given liberal opportunity to experiment.

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This style of small plate dining is getting more and more popular - how do you plan to stand out from the crowd?

TW: “By maintaining consistency with the Maray culture and continuing to deliver great experiences. I think we’ve developed something quite unique here - there’s nobody else doing what we do how we do it. It’s about being different, not better. It’s about how are we’re going to do things differently, not how we’re going to be bigger or better than anybody else. That’s the approach we want to take.”

When I asked Tom about how they come up with their synonymous recipes, he said a lot of it is down to chefs being given the freedom to be creative and experimental, no matter what their status in the kitchen. All chefs are encouraged to put on specials, inspired by their favourite flavours, culture and travels around the world. Should the special be a raring success, then it tends to find its way onto the main menu.

How do you pick your people? It’s clear Maray staff fit a certain sort of profile… 

 TW: “Culture is everything. If you have a good culture fit then everything else just follows. We follow three core values: respect, growth and quality so we like taking people on who understand that and see the purpose in what they do. It’s a lot about personality too. 

 "Mark Jackson is a good example - he started in 2014 on the floor and is now our Bar Manager. When we interviewed him, he had literally no bar or restaurant experience at all, but he was the nicest person I’d ever met so we gave him the job purely based on that. Now, he’s an amazing brand advocate and a brilliant ambassador. We champion development of our staff.”

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Maray's team on a day out in Sefton Park

When the Bold Street venue opened five years ago, budget was basic and the charming but minimalist interior embodies this part of the Maray narrative. The Allerton Road restaurant is kitted out with soft furnishings and more familiar decor that perfectly compliments its residential surroundings. With the new restaurant, the aesthetics are shouting a little louder.

Tom excitedly told me about the Parisian antique light shades that were being erected in the background as we spoke. Despite being sourced from a dealer in Stockport, the lights are symbolic of Maray’s love affair with Paris and shows how the brand’s heritage will be weaved throughout the space through its sentimental design. On the topic of heritage - the restaurant will reside in a listed location, which means many of the original architectural features will also play a focal role in the look and feel. This includes a granite bar top and kitchen counter where up to six guests will be able sit and dine in front of an open kitchen.

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Tom (R) outside the new Royal Albert Dock Maray site

So, the question on everybody’s lips: why the Royal Albert Dock?

TW: “It wasn’t actually directly on our radar but we met with Aberdeen Standards [the investment company behind the current regeneration of the Docks] and they sold us the dream. Once we’d seen it as a chance to be a part of Liverpool history, we just thought ‘there’s no way we’re not doing this’. It’s actually really humbling… it’s such a beautiful location.”

Sustainability is also going to be a pretty big deal with the opening of the new restaurant. Eco-consciousness and social responsibility are going to come naturally. 

“It’s a big, ongoing project that is being spearheaded by business manager, James”, Tom told me. They will be taking a holistic approach, so not only will they be doing their damnedest to cut carbon and run a more eco-sensitive operation, they’ll also be considering charity, the local community and employee wellbeing too. Maray will continue to work with the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) in meeting a stringent framework of credentials - “even if that means buying more expensive produce”, Tom says. 

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Inside Maray's Bold Street restaurant

Why do you think Liverpool is such a breeding ground for independent businesses?

TW: “Liverpool as a city has a fiercely independent spirit doesn’t it? It’s inherent in the population. It’s almost a nationality of its own. It’s a village really. So when you combine the size of it with such strong support, it just shows how much people here like to see independents thriving.”

Can we expect to see Maray popping up in any other cities any time soon?

TW: “We are growing and we do have plans. It really just depends on the site. If you’d have told me a year ago that we’d be opening a new restaurant on the Docks I’d have said ‘no way’. There’s potential for a Manchester restaurant. If I had to put money on it, I’d say that would be next.”

Just before we wrapped our tete a tete up, Tom added: “We do plan to keep growing and not that ‘chain’ is a dirty word or anything but Maray will always retain its independent spirit and values”. Music to your ears as much as ours, we’re sure. 

Maray will be opening its Royal Albert Dock restaurant on Monday 8th July and offering diners 50% off food until 14th July (excluding Thursday 11th). Unit 4 Britannia Pavilion, L3 4AD