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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Ireland drank one year's supply of Cristal in 30 days - Giorgio's back

Former Unicorn owner Giorgio Casari has learned some tough lessons after losing everything in the crash, but he's ready to start again

SECOND ACT: Giorgio has thrown open the doors to Marcels after losing almost €3m when the crash hit his restaurant business
SECOND ACT: Giorgio has thrown open the doors to Marcels after losing almost €3m when the crash hit his restaurant business
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Restaurateur Giorgio Casari sat down at his dining room table and looked across at his young family with a sick feeling in his stomach.

It was Christmas Day, 2009, and he had borne the news for weeks that their business of almost 20 years was insolvent. Known throughout Dublin as the face of The Unicorn, the eatery where colourful developers, A-list rock stars, billionaire businessmen and world-class politicians went to see and be seen at the height of the Tiger's roar, he waited until his family had battled through the festive season to break the news.

He catches his throat as he recalls: "My daughter found it difficult to breathe. My youngest son seemed to be OK, but it hit him more later. But my other son . . . my God . . . it hit him like a ton of bricks, he just cried and cried.

"It's very difficult to talk about it. This is the first time I have ever . . . I can feel myself getting upset again now. It brings it all back."

The scene was a world away from the glamour and excess of the boom years, for which The Unicorn became famous.

He recalls the height of it: "I remember each year the company that distributes Cristal champagne [sold at €380 a bottle] to various countries around the world depending on the amount they estimate they'll need . . . I remember they allocated to Ireland, what they calculated they would need for the year.

"It was gone in 30 days."

In his restaurant, the battle of who had the biggest wads of cash regularly played out: "Our most expensive wine, Gaja Barolo, sold at about €520 a bottle." Of the black-and-white label, he says: "It was very distinctive. You could spot it from three or four tables away. And as soon as one group ordered, it had a domino effect. The next table had to have it, too, and the next and the next."

Early one morning he got a phone call from a secretary asking him to open the restaurant for a wealthy businessman on a Sunday. Giorgio explained he couldn't possibly do it for such a small number - 25 diners. "I don't think you understand Mr Casari. May I see you in person?"

The following Sunday he says the guests strode in and the party kicked off: "I've never seen anything like it. There was opera singers and entertainers arriving until the early hours of the morning . . . and all the food and the wine," says Giorgio. The bill reached around €20,000.

As business boomed, the banks gave Giorgio easy cash. "They were all smiles and jokingly saying, 'No problem, Giorgio." Referring to the loan documents, they said, "It's only a little formality.'"

He enjoyed business-class flights to Australia and five- star hotels. He bought a Porsche, a penthouse apartment on Dublin's Harcourt Street and a million-pound pad in London - "It was already kitted out with furniture. But they put another €50,000 on top and said: 'You might as well take it because it is there. Sure, spend it on a holiday.'

When the crash hit "like a violent tsunami", the restaurant became mired in financial troubles. The two companies that controlled Il Segreto and The Unicorn became insolvent and tensions with his business partners heightened.

"My wife was lighting a candle for me every morning. Coming down that lane [the path that leads to the Merrion Row restaurant] was awful." When the restaurants finally closed, he says: "One thousand per cent the phone stopped ringing. One or two stayed in touch. I think people just didn't know what to say. They either avoided me or said, 'I'm sorry to hear' and I retell the story all over again and I felt like I was reliving the pain every time."

It became too painful to pass the Merrion Row restaurant. "I would put 20 minutes on my journey in the car just to avoid it."

"I went into a depression. We went to Spain for two weeks to try and take a breather from it all. But it was worse there. I remember standing on the beach unable to breathe. I started having a panic attack, it all got too much. I had to go back to the hotel room. I couldn't go out.

"I lost everything. It was €3m in total. They are still trying to take my home."

He brought his wife to her one and only bank meeting. "The next time I was there I said she is never coming here again. You are toxic. She is too pure for this.

"I know some people unfortunately split during the crash. We got stronger. She convinced me go to TM [Transcendental Meditation] to cope."

He hasn't spoken to the Stokes family since he parted ways with his former business partners after a difficult court case.

He has thrown open the doors of his new restaurant previously called Il Segreto, now under the name of Marcels. During our interview, we were forced to move into a snug due to the sheer number of customers throwing their arms around him and telling him they were delighted he is back.

It's his Italian charm that attracted the great and the good through his doors when the good times rolled.

His new restaurant has an American vibe with a large bar attached and is already creating a buzz around town as the new haunt for long lunches.

So has Giorgio changed? "I no longer take anything for granted. In the business side, I leave the finance and accountancy to the property operators, The Mercantile Group. Now I can focus on great food and service, which is the way it should be."

Has Ireland learned its lesson? "I can see the same mentality creeping back in. If this was an act of God to make everyone better, wiser, then I haven't seen it. "Personally, I've learned and I am ready to make a fresh start. I finally enjoy coming in to work again."

Sunday Independent

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