Dine of the times

Dominic Lutyens finds out if the age of flamboyant restaurant interiors is over

Is the over-indulgent, swaggeringly ostentatious gastrodome, which had its heyday in the mid-1990s with restaurants such as Mezzo and Quaglinos, heading for an early grave? Expensively-designed restaurant interiors are being blamed in part for the massive mark-up on food, and it can take years for a start-up to recoup the costs of using a big-name designer.

To their growing chagrin, it’s the restaurant-goers who are shelling out for it. So, where is restaurant design heading? And what do clients and customers really want?

According to Conran & Partners director Paul Zara, people in the 1990s were seduced by a radically new wave of glam restaurants they’d never experienced before. ‘It’s easy to forget how bad eating out could be in London in the 1970s and 1980s,’ he says. Jay Rayner, restaurant critic for The Observer, agrees. ‘Britain had never been a great restaurant-going nation, and when it started to discover the idea of eating out, there was the expectation that it should be dramatic and about showy design. But this ended up being to the detriment of the food.’

Why are British diners rebelling now? ‘They’re more mature about eating out, realising it isn’t just a lifestyle experience,’ Rayner adds. ‘They’re looking more at what’s on their plate, and are less in awe of the design.’

In fact, it’s a particular type of interior that appears to be on the wane. The consensus among restaurateurs, designers and restaurant critics is that, increasingly, people want to eat out in a more casual, intimate, welcoming and attitude-free setting.

Theatrical interiors with sweeping staircases, tricksy lighting and a penchant for recherché food fads are leaving even the clientele of top-end restaurants cold. After a series of cuisine revolutions over the past 10 years – towers on a plate, pictures on a plate and fusion cooking – food in Britain’s top restaurants is settling down for a period of calm. Complicated is out, simple is in and design is reflecting this.

The traditional, upscale restaurant always felt too formal and ritualistic, says Zoran Marchetich, designer of La Chaumiere, a new London restaurant serving French cuisine in an understated, oak-panelled dining room. ‘Now people want simpler food, and less money spent on extravagant style statements,’ Marchetich says. Similarly London eaterie The Grand Union serves traditionally English cooking and is housed in a largely untouched Victorian pub.

Hence the success of the gastropub, epitomised by London’s The Eagle, The Independence and The Mason’s Arms, as well as The Lough Pool in Ross-on-Wye and Trouble House Inn in Gloucestershire. Gastropubs’ appeal is as venues where you can eat or drink or do both, says Time Out restaurant critic Guy Dimond.

Flexibility is a trend in restaurants at large, says Bethan Ryder, a specialist writer on bar and restaurant design. New restaurants increasingly open as part of a large venue that also includes a bar and possibly a dance area. This is a very New York thing, she says.

Certainly, what many call the ‘Conranisation’ of restaurant design now gets the universal thumbs-down. Conran created places where the colour of the plate rather than what was on it was the most important thing, says Rayner.

‘There’s a reaction among our clients to the perceived excesses of the Conran heyday, exemplified by an emphasis on scale and sophistication,’ says Fusion Design director Roger Gascoigne, who created the interiors of restaurants The Ark, Hush and Momo.

Still, many designers believe there will always be a demand for achingly chichi eateries, particularly among novelty-hungry fashionistas. ‘There will always be a niche for the “occasion restaurant”,’ says Industry managing director Annie Foster Firth who designed London eateries Catch, The Water Rat and 500. ‘Drama is inextricably linked with restaurants,’ she says. ‘Theatrical ones, like London’s The Ivy, have held their own for 20 years.’

According to Dimond, London restaurants Spoon at the Sanderson hotel and Asia de Cuba at St Martin’s Lane Hotel, both designed by Philippe Starck, are packed every night ‘because their flamboyant interiors are a hit’. Interestingly, this autumn sees the opening in London of the mother of all see-and-be-seen gastrodomes, The Sketch. Designed by Noé Duchaufour-Lawrence, Gabahn O’Keefe and overseen by Momo owner Morad Mazouz, opens with a start-up cost of £12m.

If the Conran ethos is still influential, it’s because people are now so used to eating out in stylish venues that restaurants have to raise their game to compete, says Zara. But this fierce competition, coupled with the fickle tastes of the restaurant-going public and the difficulties of recouping a start-up’s spend on design and build force many restaurants to close.

Nearly 70 per cent fail in the first year, according to the Restaurant Association. A lot of restaurateurs fall foul of designers having no experience in the practicalities of the business, says Foster Firth. This gives credence to the argument, made by Zara, that hiring a big-name designer such as David Collins or Christian Liaigre, who designed Hakkasan, proves cost-effective: they’re experienced, and can focus a client’s money on what matters, whether the budget’s big or small.

That said, most experts agree that these are the exception and the trend is for, as Rayner puts it, ‘anti-design’. ‘The greatest anti-design statement in London is the restaurant St John [designed by chef Fergus Henderson], with its white walls and stone floors,’ he says. What’s important there is what’s on the plate.

According to Gascoigne, there’s a reaction against anything that whiffs of being corporate. ‘There’s a move towards being eclectic, mixing materials and finishes, using reclaimed materials, mismatching furniture, putting second-hand stuff next to contemporary things, creating a feeling of being loose, relaxed, homespun and undesigned,’ he says. But this approach entails as much subtlety of design as the slickest of contemporary venues.

Restaurateurs can never assume one formula will work forever. But should restaurants start to look too much like your average Joe’s front room, customers may start to wonder why they don’t just microwave a ready-meal in the comfort of their homes. They might even start hankering again after the vulgar razzmatazz of the gastrodome.

New trends in restaurant design

what the pundits predict

THE DESIGNER

Annie Foster Firth, Industry

‘Clients today are more cautious and less ostentatious with their money. Restaurant interiors are becoming more low-key, relaxed and friendly to cater to this. We’re steering away from the highly polished minimalism of recent years. Colour and comfort are back, as well as smaller restaurants and gastropubs that offer neighbourhood dining and value for money.’

THE CRITIC

Jay Rayner, The Observer

‘Concerns about the high costs of eating out are going to feed back into a demand for simplicity and functionality. It doesn’t take much to create an attractive dining room. In the past few years, we’ve grown tired of everything in 14 shades of chocolate – the late-1960s/ early-1970s airport lounge look – that became staggeringly prevalent, typified by sleek joints like London’s Eyre Brothers and West Street [designed by Wells Mackereth]. Anti-design is the way forward: think London bistro Le Pigalle – a specialist in simple French country cooking with white walls and a few bits of art.’

Latest articles