Eggs before bacon

Public institutions looking for alternative revenues are revamping their catering offers to compete with mainstream restaurants, exploiting their unique interiors to encourage social as well as educational visits. Emily Gosling investigates

Next week will see the opening of the new restaurant for the Royal Academy of Arts in London, designed by Tom Dixon and Design Research Studio.
The revamp follows in the footsteps of restaurant and café redesigns at the Barbican, the British Film Institute and the Natural History Museum, among others. The wave of design work comes in some cases as institutions look to improve their revenue streams and compete with mainstream restaurants.

Interior design consultancy SHH led the redesign of two cafés at the Barbican Centre in London, which reopened as the Barbican Foodhall and the Barbican Lounge last year (News, DW 14 September 2010).

Neil Hogan, SHH creative director, says, ’A lot of the organisations are having to look at revenue resource streams because of Government cuts in terms of sponsorships and so forth, so they’re looking very closely at what’s making money. Public attractions all have tolook at being more self-supportive.’

Jon Muskett, director of Path Design, which created Benugo branches for institutions including the BFI and NHM, points to high street competition as an important factor behind the trend to redesign.

He feels that the foremost concern in the design of Path’s Benugo outlets, as with the chain’s stand-alone branches, is prioritising the food and drink to enable the institutions’ offers to compete with those on the high street.

Muskett says, ’There’s more pressure on museums to drive better quality and deliver a service more in line with the choice on the high street now. Customers are demanding more.’

However, Oliver Peyton, founder of Peyton and Byrne, which holds the catering contract for the RA, feels that the trend for institutions to revamp their dining spaces was in motion long before Government cuts became a factor.

Peyton says, ’Even five or six years ago the concept of going to a gallery to have a meal was unusual. Museums and galleries realised some time ago, way before [funding cuts], that they wanted to give people an experience. It’s about saying, “This is what we do, this is who we are.”

Charles Saumarez Smith, secretary and chief executive of the RA, agrees. ’Now, visiting museums, galleries and art exhibitions is viewed by institutions as much socially as it is educationally,’ he says.

’People are more alert to character,’ Saumarez Smith adds. [They] want the space to be related to the experience of going to the institution: they don’t treat it as a neutral fuelling stop, but part of the experience.’

In creating this experience, the venue itself becomes integral in informing the design of its restaurants and cafés.

Hogan describes the Barbican’s iconic building as the main influence on SHH’s design. ’[The Barbican] is a unique piece of Modernist architecture,’ he says. ’Helen [Hughes, SHH’s lead designer on the project] looked at the history and specifications of the original design and how the materials were used – [such as] the concrete and the exposed elements of the building sculpture.

’We stripped back the paint off the concrete ceiling, which is a very dominant part of the place. It references the era it was built in, while being contemporary, but also a bit retro.’

Path’s NHM Benugo outlets, created in 2009, also strongly reference the nature of the museum in look and feel.

Muskett says, ’There’s a very contemporary feel to the main restaurant. We had to play off the terracotta, so we used suspended platforms and stripped it away so that you know you’re in the NHM.’

In its work for the RA restaurant, Dixon’s Design Research Studio used materials including marble, brass and velvet to reference the RA’s Regency history and a glass-cube structure in the centre of the room will display artworks previously hidden in the RA vaults.

’I didn’t want to decorate too much,’ says Dixon. ’It’s a busy floor – there’s a lot of wood panelling and several murals. Our intervention had to be fairly light-touch and very respectful.’

Saumarez Smith says that while the redecoration will transform the ’mood and aura of the restaurant’, the catalyst for the redesign was the switch of the RA’s catering contract, formerly held by Compass, to Peyton and Byrne.

’It will look and feel like somewhere you want to sit and feel part of the academy, surrounded by the sculptures,’ says Saumarez Smith. ’So far, it feels like a welcoming space – not too austere, and in sympathy with the Norman Shaw interiors, but not trying to be historical.’

The RA is the latest of many arts venue outlets now managed by Peyton and Byrne, which also runs the National Gallery’s National café, designed by David Collins, as well as concessions at the Wallace Collection, the Institute of Contemporary Arts and the Wellcome Collection, all in London. Peyton says, ’You have to work with the venue. The RA has a massive amount of history.’

’We’re trying to retain the tradition of the RA, but also give it a modern update,’ adds Peyton. ’We didn’t want a pastiche – we didn’t want a “retro” restaurant.’

Dining in public

Neil Hogan’s thoughts on designing dining spaces in public venues:

  • Clientele – you must look at the client base, but it can easily change because of things like school holidays
  • Corporate attitude – somewhere like the Natural History Museum has to have very Green credentials, for example
  • Type of food served – interiors have to suit the specific food offers. At the Barbican, you have to cater for what people want preor post-shows
  • Architecture – work with the spaces rather than against them

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