Feeding frenzy

It’s almost impossible to remember a time when we hadn’t tried polenta, didn’t know our sushi from our sashimi, and could still enjoy a T-bone steak without fear of prosecution.

How things have changed. A gastronomically enlightened post-recession public, once happy with a kebab on the way home from a night’s drinking, now seeks its entertainment in dining out. And restaurateurs are falling over themselves to provide newer and more exciting venues where people can exercise their new-found spending power.

In Greater London alone, there are already nearly 12 000 restaurants, with another 20 to 30 new ventures opening each week. About 15 of these will be relaunches of establishments that have closed down and reopened – but it all means lots of work for the designers.

Just a few of the big names opening over the next few months include: the sixth in the Chez Gerard chain; the latest Conran venture, Sartoria; a second branch of Indian restaurant Rasa; a new concept in curry, the big and busy Pukka Bar; Gary Rhodes’ new venture, Rhodes in the Square; and a restaurant arm for West End club The End, called aka.

According to free information line Restaurant Services, professional people eat out up to ten times a week (including business lunches).

“Without doubt, we are eating out more than we were two years ago,” says a spokesman. “People have more money to spend and they have more choice. They also know much more about food and which regions different dishes come from within a country.”

He thinks the situation is helped by the number of food programmes on TV and the increase in international travel.

“People are paying more attention to the design of the restaurants they go to – something which is way out or unusual will be more popular. And the small things make a difference,” he says. “The Birdcage, which has recently opened on London’s Whitfield Street, is very popular: the menu is handed to customers in an old book and the wine list is crumpled up inside a birdcage. People like a bit of theatre.”

The latest generation of restaurants seems to be veering towards a hybrid of bar and restaurant. More bars serve food (quality modern British, not microwaved chicken and chips), and restaurants put a greater focus on their bar areas. In the not too distant past, if a restaurant had a bar it was probably just a small holding area where customers waited for their table. Today, restaurants such as Mash, Pharmacy and Mezzo attract a drinking crowd as well as diners, which all adds to the atmosphere.

Layo Paskin, soon to open his first restaurant, aka, assesses the situation: “I think the late licensing helps. For years, England’s drinking culture was quite plentiful but not very exciting, and pubs hadn’t changed for years. Now people don’t want to be told they have to either go to a club or go home at 11 o’clock on Friday night – they want somewhere to go for a late drink. At the same time, restaurateurs are realising that being just a restaurant can be quite conservative and that a bar adds spice.”

In Manchester, where bar culture is still very strong, bars are adding eating areas. In the thriving Castlefield area, existing bars such as the award-winning Barca are putting increased emphasis on food, and newcomer The Quay has a mezzanine eating area and full kitchen.

As well as becoming more gastronomically discerning, the public has become more design literate. An urban lifestyle is now as much about living, working and socialising in attractive spaces as it is about wearing Calvin Klein or driving a Ka. The wealth of lifestyle magazines focusing on interior design, and the home styling programmes fitted into the television schedules right next to the food shows, have fed this hunger for good design.

In London, while the West End nears saturation point, restaurateurs are exploring new areas. Hoxton, Canary Wharf and the nether reaches of Great Portland Street are beginning to attract fashionable eateries – the newly opened Shoreditch Electricity Showrooms, MPW and Mash respectively. Wealthy but under-served neighbourhoods such as Clapham and Blackheath now have the Polygon Bar and Grill and One Lawn Terrace.

Conran, meanwhile, is planning his assault on the City. His rooftop extravaganza Côte d’Argent, at No 1 Poultry, opens in August, and next year the Great Eastern Hotel opens, featuring a whopping five restaurants and a bar.

“Terence thinks the City is one of the most undiscovered attributes of London,” says Victoria Parnis of Conran Restaurants. “The City is a market that’s really changing. People are working different hours so it’s getting more of a 24-hour feel. Yet really good restaurants are sparse considering these are the sort of guys who love food and have money to spend. At the moment they all come down to Butler’s Wharf.”

Outside London, key areas to watch are Glasgow, Bristol and Leeds. As Glasgow gears up to be City of Architecture next year, restaurateurs are preparing to feed the culture vulture. Meanwhile, the success of Bristol’s first “London”-style restaurant, River Station, and a flurry of new cultural projects around the docks, should be an encouragement for more of the same.

Leeds, already home to a number of tasty eateries, quietly continues its renaissance. The excitement caused by the appearance of the north’s first Harvey Nichols and this year’s opening of the funky Jam-designed Norman bar suggest a tidal wave of new design-conscious restaurants cannot be far behind.

Nationwide, the restaurant sector may be about to witness the birth of another major chain. At the end of June, Trevor Gulliver, the man behind recent London success stories such as Putney Bridge, The Firestation and St John, will launch his latest venture, Pukka Bar. In what he sees as an English twist on one of our favourite foods, Gulliver is creating a bustling curry and beer hall that will emphasise quality Indian cooking.

The design is by David Collins, best known for the Atlantic Bar and Grill, and focuses on creating an atmosphere of theatre with a vast open dining room and an open kitchen where customers can see the dishes simmering away in eight huge cauldrons. It’s in an old furniture showroom in the depths of south London at Sydenham, which doesn’t seem the most obvious location to launch a restaurant – but then again, McDonald’s started its UK campaign from Woolwich. Gulliver is confident, and says, “If this one works, they’ll be coming out of the woodwork. I like to think the Pukka Bar has the legs of Pizza Express.”

As some of the more traditional breweries rebrand themselves to become more contemporary, architects and designers are cashing in. Manchester-based Harrison Ince, designer of Barca and local architect on Mash and Air, has been appointed by Greenalls’ parent company Devere’s to redesign its bar/restaurant chain to attract a younger crowd.

“There was always a feeling among some of the more established firms that a contemporary interior looks great and gets you into the magazines, but it doesn’t take the money. Now that’s been shown not to be the case,” says architect Andy Ince. People have been voting with their feet and going to places that are more design led, so now the big players are following suit.

“There is more space these days for designers to design. In the past, people have had to design to a formula. Now the client is asking what we as designers feel will work.”

Linda Morey Smith, who has remodelled the Commonwealth Club and is currently working on a City restaurant at the Chartered Institute of Accountants, agrees. “You get much more freedom of design doing a restaurant than an office; there is room to be creative. Even if the interior is sleek and modern, you can have fun with the detailing. Things like the fronts of bars and the signage can be a bit more flamboyant.

“There are definitely lots of opportunities for designers in the restaurants at the moment. There seem to be hundreds of restaurants opening in London… although whether the bubble is about to burst or not I don’t know.”

As long as the economic situation remains buoyant, there will be a market for new restaurants. And even when the market reaches saturation point, the public’s demand for something new means there will be a need for revamps and refurbishment. The worry is, what happens when the feel good factor ends. As Restaurant Services says, “Business is booming but the market is getting saturated. If we hit a recession it will be survival of the fittest.”

Sartoria

Designer: CD Partnership

Graphics: Terence Conran with Conran Studio

Covers: 1Address: 20 Savile Row, London WOpened: 8 June

The latest Conran venture, serving contemporary Italian cuisine, is tucked away with the exclusive tailors shops of Savile Row. The theme is sartorial elegance, and the design is intended to echo Thirties Italian rationalism.

Oak panelling and a marble entrance floor give a tone of understated opulence while low-slung furniture, including the recently reissued Eames plywood chairs, by Vitra supplied through The Conran Shop Contracts, encourage designers to relax.

As well as its name, Sartoria picks up themes from its neighbours in its design. One of the two private dining rooms will be lined with herringbone suiting cloth, straight-backed chairs are shrouded in white tailor’s cloth and six bastes (half-finished jackets) from different Savile Row tailors will be on show.

The theme is carried through in the graphics, designed by Conran graphics and advertising arm Conran Studio. Plates are badged with a simple button, the menu features an image of ravioli on one side and pinking sheers on the other, and, most cheekily, the bar menu features a salami on one side and a tape measure on the other.

And if that isn’t enough, the bill is presented on a pincushion.

River Station

Designers: Inscape Architects (exterior), Wells Mackereth (interior)

Client: John Payne, Shirley Anne Bell and Peter Taylor

Covers: 2Cost: 1m

Opened: 23 April

London’s trend for the restaurant-cum-deli, made popular by Villandry,

Harvey Nichols and Bluebird, has hit Bristol. The 1m River Station, with 250 covers, features a deli, wine bar, takeaway service and restaurant, along with the big bustling atmosphere found in Conran restaurants.

In relaxed West Country style, it also offers a crêche at weekends. And, built inside a former river police station, it makes the most of its waterfront location with generous amounts of glazing giving diners views out across the dock.

The ground floor is occupied by the deli and bar, with the bar area pulled right up to the front of the room to allow plenty of room for display space behind.

Materials on this lower, busier level are harder and brighter. Steel and glass predominate in the display area and a Portland stone floor is continued up the front of the deli counter and topped with a deep green marble slab. Chairs from Halifax and square zinc-topped tables are played off against bespoke warm red leather banquettes – fast becoming a Wells Mackereth trademark – to give an intimate feel.

‘We did quite a lot of research around good Italian delis in London. It was all about display. We wanted that whole atmosphere of smells, tastes and good quality lighting,’ says architect James Wells of Wells Mackereth. ‘Hopefully it doesn’t feel like a food shop, it feels more like a place you might find in Milan or Rome.’

On the first floor, the main seating area is arranged under the broken curved roof and naturally lit through the rooflight above.

Banquettes are arranged into an island in the centre of the space. Off to the side are two lower, more intimate spaces.

The kitchen is partially hidden behind a glazed screen, part etched and part clear, allowing a glimpse of the drama behind. Although the customer will never see it, a lot of time went into working out the logistics of the most efficient way for waiters and waitresses to drop off dirty dishes and pick up plates of food.

Lighting has been carefully planned to create the same luminosity in the heart of the restaurant as exists by the windows. Wells Mackereth brought in theatre lighting designer Mark Ridler, who it had worked with on sets for dancer Bunty Mathias; he has used lots of accent lighting, particularly around the deli area, and canvas screens over exterior balconies reflect light. Acoustics were also important. To provide a quieter environment, despite its busy feel, Wells Mackereth countered hard surfaces with plenty of upholstery and introduced an acoustic ceiling of timber batons.

‘In London there are lots of deli-cum-restaurants, but they are only just beginning to come out to the rest of the UK,’ says Wells. ‘The client thought there was a market for somewhere on a much bigger scale for people to come to in bigger groups. It is a much more Continental approach.’

aka

Designer: Paskin

Kyriakides Sands

Consultant: David Connor

Owners: Layo Paskin and Richard West

Covers: 1Address: 18 West Central Street, London WCOpens: 8 July

When it came to converting the space above his London nightclub The End, owner Layo Paskin didn’t want to follow his competitors and just add more dance floors and bars to the club. Instead, he took advantage of its West End location to create a separate restaurant that would attract a slightly older clientele than the club (25-45) but still have a youthful ambience.

‘We’ve tried to design a place where three or four types of evening are going on at once,’ explains Paskin. ‘There’s drinking and snacking on the ground floor, and dining on the upper floor. We will be installing a projection screen on the far wall and running a film club on Sunday lunchtimes and Monday evenings. Hopefully, it will have a New York-style buzz.’

Aka, built inside a raw industrial shell, features a bar area downstairs where light food is available and a mezzanine dining area upstairs. An aerial walkway will lead across the space to a star table.

One of the most dominant features will be the zinc-clad bar lit with fibre-optics. ‘One of the worst things about any bar is having to queue, so we made ours nearly 50 feet long and will put one bartender every six feet. That way we shouldn’t get people standing more than two deep,’ says Paskin.

The design mixes the aesthetic with the functional. It is built to stand up to the wear and tear of a large flow of people, using hard-wearing furniture, strong banquette seating and leather sofas from Montis. The Philippe Starck chairs from Driade, supplied through Viaduct, have been tested for strength, to make sure they can withstand people leaning back on them.

Paskin stresses that although the design is paramount, he doesn’t want aka to be just another designer restaurant. ‘We don’t want a place that’s over-designed, right down to the pepper pots. That feels more like being in a design shop than a restaurant.’

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