It’s 15 years since La Sala launched in Marbella. With a new restaurant, bowling alley, sports bar and estate agency soon to be added, Jon Clarke discovers why the restaurant and lifestyle brand is still going stronger than ever
SITTING on a roundabout overlooking the busy N-340 motorway, it has no right to be the most successful Marbella restaurant in a generation.
Yet, somehow, La Sala continues to be the place that every tourist aspires to come to for at least one night of their holiday.
Guaranteed to offer glitz and glamour, the sprinkling of stardust continues by the week, with celebrities from around the world continuing to flock in to enjoy the vibe.
Be they actors or soap stars, boxers or racing drivers, singers or royals, there is a magical ingredient that ensures they feel at home here or at one of its sister restaurants, including La Sala by the Sea, and soon to reopen, the Oak, next door.
From Tyson Fury to Frank Bruno, Harry Redknapp to Harry Kane and Bruce Forsyth to Ja Rule, the stars from today and yesteryear keep coming back.
Even Prince Albert of Monaco has been in for dinner, while celebrity chef Jamie Oliver made a point of joining the fun on a trip to Spain a couple of years ago.
With Amanda Holden, Boy George and Julian Clary already scheduled to drop in this Spring, what exactly is the recipe for success ensuring that anyone who is anyone keeps scything a trail to its door?
“It’s all about not being complacent,” explains boss Ian Radford, who moved to Marbella from London at the age of 20.
“We are constantly evolving with the Marbella scene and are never sitting back,” he explains over a beer on the sunny decking terrace this month.
“We don’t stop trying to change things but, above all, we try to keep the prices as reasonable as we can.”
This is certainly a vital ingredient in a resort, where prices have rapidly zoomed up to the levels of all luxury destinations in the world.
Rising fast since the pandemic eased last year, the average cost of a good quality restaurant in Marbella these days is around 80 to 90 euros a head, estimates Radford, a father-of-three, who was a squash and padel pro, before becoming a restaurateur.
“We could jump on the bandwagon and get greedy, but we are trying to keep it at 65 euros a head, up about 10 euros from before the pandemic.”
It has certainly been anything but plain sailing for the businessman, who struggled through the pandemic, not to mention Brexit and six years of recession before that.
Having over 200 staff between the various businesses, it wasn’t easy to survive the two years of Covid, he admits. “We got very little support from the government and while many of the staff went on furlough we still have to pay their social security, meaning we made quite a big loss.”
However, the last 18 months have really seen the business bounce back, bringing the highest turnover and profits since opening in 2008, initially by the sea at the beach club.
Meanwhile, reservations for La Sala by the Sea itself have gone through the roof this year, which should serve as a great barometer of the season ahead.
Before opening in a week’s time, it already has a staggering 10,000 bookings for the season, which compares to 6,000 bookings in the last comparable year of 2019.
“It is an exciting time and we are really happy that people are finally booking their holidays again nice and early,” explains Radford.
“They get their flights sorted and next it is the beach beds and restaurant bookings, well before arrival.”
He is hoping that the strong recovery in the tourist market helps to make a string of other plans for the season to go ahead swimmingly.
The first in an exciting roll out of new ventures is the re-opening of The Oak restaurant across the road from La Sala.
A complete redesign by a local firm will see the venue become a stylish, high end cocktail and wine bar, with food, open in early June.
“We are spending a lot of money on it and with a proper new roof it will be able to stay open for 12 months of the year,” explains Radford, whose wife Claire Strutton runs the beach club.
The group also owns the Havana bar in San Pedro, run by his daughter, and has recently bought a 60 foot motorboat, anchored in Puerto Banus, which will be able to take clients on day cruises and nighttime charters.
Part of the entire package the group aims to give its customers, there is also soon to be a bowling alley and golf simulator venue below the main restaurant, where it used to have a nightclub.
And then there is the sports bar, the Clubhouse, which should be open by the summer, as well as La Sala Homes, a real estate arm, set to open soon next door.
“And once the new Marbella town plan is finalised we hope to open a hotel upstairs over two floors,” adds the businessman, who is also in the process of planning a 12-bedroom luxury hotel and spa in Malaga city.
Clearly, never standing still, he has just acquired a country home in the Serrania de Ronda, where he insists he and his wife are never happier.
As if he needed a sign of the good omens ahead, just as he’s telling me that legendary 80s pop star and TV presenter Boy George is set for a trip over in June, on comes his hit Do you Really Want to Hurt Me? With this much enthusiasm and joie de vivre, there can’t be many.
IAN RADFORD – My three-decade Spanish love affair
BORN and bred near Chelmsford, in Essex, La Sala owner Ian Radford had planned to become a squash professional back home and became a junior champion.
But his dad insisted he got a ‘proper job’ and sent him off at the age of 16 to work as a trader in the city.
He did well and by the age of 19 he owned two houses and drove a fancy sports car.
But then the late 80s recession hit and he found himself without a job and wondering what to do next.
“So I got in my XR2 and drove down to southern Spain,” he explains. “I had never even been here on holiday but I heard there was lots going on.”
Within weeks he had joined a squash club in Mijas and entered the local Costa del Sol Open tournament, which he went on to win.
It proved to be an auspicious event, as he was offered a job at a brand new sports club, the Club Leisure Sport by the Senator Hotel in central Marbella.
“I started teaching squash and then padel, and was soon organising tennis and then football camps. Next thing it was football tours and it went on from there,” he adds.
As well as getting into the last 16 of the international padel tournament in Madrid, he continues to be an excellent golfer and is now on the board of Aloha Golf Club.
But while he loves the game, he is never happier than horse riding or walking in the nearby hills.
“We are doing a place up in the mountains and love discovering and eating at all the great rustic places inland,” he says.
A massive gourmand, he eats out ‘five times a week’, but doesn’t like anything too fancy, listing authentic places, like Cideria de Monolo and Gaspar, as among his local favourites.
LA SALA BY NUMBERS
- The La Sala Group has 155,000 covers a year
- On a busy summer day it can serve 1500 people
- Over one million drinks are sold each year
- 300,000 food dishes are sold
- It employs over 200 staff
- Pre-bookings at La Sala by the Sea are over 10,000 this year
- A sunbed for four to six people costs around 300 euros for the day