Doesn’t anyone eat at home any more? There’s hardly a single shop left in my local high street; they’ve all become restaurants and are full night and day, with tables spilling on to the pavement. The story’s repeated all over the country. The inexorable influx of French or Italian style chains – CafÃ© Rouge, and various pizza and pasta places – has been closely followed by the eager entrepreneur, often here today and gone tomorrow, with some wacky idea for a new style of eating. And the ethnic contribution is ever stronger, classier and more diverse.
I blame Terence Conran. He made eating out fashionable and now we’re all at it. The fact that what a restaurant looks like is an important part of the whole experience can be laid at his door too, sometimes with less than brilliant results. Take minimalism, not that Terence ever has. But some of its early exponents in the restaurant field – John Pawson, Rick Mather, Eva
Jiricna – grabbed a brilliant concept and exploited it, each quite differently, to wonderful effect. They were instantly emulated – unbearable attempts hacked out, with designers or their clients thinking minimal means bare plaster, cheap chairs and a quick profit. The effort involved in creating minimalism of the type those pioneers produced to such acclaim is not to be underestimated… You need great designers, perfect workmanship and good materials for it to work… Walk along the far reaches of London’s Fulham Road to see fine examples of minimalism up the spout, though others can be spotted in any provincial town. Their owners seem unaware that if you haven’t got cash, you must at least have style.
Fortunately, the best restaurateurs know this. And several have embraced the minimalist ethos that less is beautiful, but with their designers realigning it to match current gutsier predilections (and smaller budgets). Illustrating a low budget achievement to perfection is the Tampopo contemporary noodle restaurant in Manchester. Designers Harrison Ince used beech floors, beech tables and benches, and splashes of colour on plasterboard screens or glass panels – and not much else. But it is cheerful, attractive and welcoming.
In London, Julian Metcalfe of Pret Manger fame has taken a prime site on the corner of Walton Street and Draycott Avenue for a grab-your-food-from-a-conveyer-belt Japanese restaurant called T’su. There was no designer for this blond interior with its high wooden backed stools grouped around two conveyor belts, just Metcalfe’s clever ideas, with input from Bill Bungay, art director of the advertising agency Ignition, and a firm of shopfitters.
Putney Bridge restaurant has great river views and a sumptuously simple interior by Fitch, achieved by using pewter, leather and reclaimed woods on floors and surfaces. Virgile & Stone is also adept at producing this grittier minimalism. Following hard on its lovely quirky Stephen Bull, it has designed a new Chez GÃ©rard in Bishopsgate, updating classic French style (now a bit jaded) with simple pine panelling, and a black and white tiled floor to make a restaurant of the Nineties.
Putting minimalism aside, splendid restaurant interiors come from using the character of an existing building, usually one which previously had nothing to do with the restaurant business. This method is dependant on spotting potential, then knowing how much to leave, how much to modernise. Old fire stations, banks, even private houses, have been invoked by people with courage and imagination.
Prime among them has to be Conran – again – and always at a classy level. Nobody has found a restaurant use for an old building better than he (or his designers), starting with Bibendum, that opulent place where you eat from the comfort of an armchair in the lofty, unlikely setting of the old Michelin tyre building. He’s done it again with equal Ã©lan at the Bluebird Garage in London’s King’s Road. In the first floor restaurant the high steel roof structure has been left exposed by designers CD Partnership (with Conran in charge) and the elegant leaded Twenties windows across the facade repaired and retained. Magnificently fitted out, a garage for cars is now a smart eating place for London’s more glamorous guzzlers.
A less dramatic, but no less successful, transformation is at Belair House in Dulwich where its owner, Gary Cady, an actor with style, has refurbished a grade II listed Georgian house and painted every grand room in one of the rich, singing colours which was popular in the 18th century. In Edinburgh’s New Town, Graven Images has, in a cost-conscious way, glazed over an old courtyard, relaid the existing stone floor, and inserted a mezzanine to one side, making Indigo Yard an upstairs-downstairs restaurant for the city’s young professionals.
Another restaurant phenomenon is, so far as I know, currently confined to London: the gastrodrome. This is different from the food courts which flood shopping centres with iffy odours which are – even the best of them – distinctly down-market. A gastrodrome – invented by we all know who – comprises posh restaurants of various persuasions grouped with equally posh food emporiums and wine shops. Conran opened the first at Butler’s Wharf alongside Tower Bridge, and now his Bluebird complex – which, as well as the restaurant, has a cafÃ©, market stall, kitchen shop and supermarket – is the next (though I suppose the brasserie, restaurant and supermarket atop Harvey Nichols might rate as one too).
Most recently, the company which operates Le Palais du Jardin in Covent Garden has seized the idea and invested an unrevealed fortune in La Belle Epoque in Draycott Avenue. Comprising two restaurants, a brasserie with pavement tables, and a food shop, it has been fitted out by architect Jonathan Dunn Associates in a style as far removed from minimalism or even the less exacting Conranism, as you can get. With an avenue of palms in the ground floor La Salle restaurant, and Versace designed tableware in the basement L’Oriental restaurant, the premises are awash with marble, mahogany panelling, bevelled mirrors, extravagantly upholstered chairs and sparkling lighting. Corporate identity and individual identities for each part of the complex are by Pocknell Studio.
Could this presage a new era of flagrant exhibitionism in the restaurant world, and is minimalism dead?
Where the restaurateurs eat
(Zilli and Zilli Fish)
There is a lively buzzy atmosphere that is always a pleasure to enter. The service is exemplary – the matre d’ knows everyone by name therefore giving a very personal service. He makes everyone feel important and special. My favourite dishes are Crispy Duck Salad to start, followed by the best Truffle Risotto outside Northern Italy and rounded off with a delicious Cappuccino BrulÃ©e.
Lawrence Isaacson (Groupe Chez GÃ©rard)
It’s sophisticated without being ostentatious; it’s clubby; it’s got excellent customer recognition and exceedingly good service and has got that personal touch by having one of the owners generally on site; consistently of a good quality without being exceptional; it’s a restaurant that knows very much what it is, who its customers are and what they want.
Stephen Bull (Stephen Bull restaurants)
An Italian restaurant with a good chef who uses his brain. Giorgio Locatelli produces food that is interesting and intelligent, with strong flavours. The room itself isn’t the most glamorous in London but the food and a good wine list more than make up for it. Even though it is popular, it is not expensive.
Terence Conran (latest ‘gastrodrome’ Bluebird)
The Ivy is an exceptionally well-run restaurant. Its owners, Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, keep a very close eye on things, and their attention to detail – whether it’s to do with the cooking, the service or the design – is a vital component of its success. The food is an intelligent blend of fashionable dishes backed up by solid, comforting and reliable ‘staples’; you know you will always be able to get something great like fish and chips.
Oliver Peyton (Atlantic Bar and Grill and Coast among others)
The Sugar Club
My all-time favourite is Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and in the UK, The Sugar Club. This wins over all the others because of Peter Gordon’s great food and the relaxed atmosphere of the restaurant.