The joy of eating out
30 Apr 2021
It is twenty weeks since I ate in a restaurant, and I am eagerly looking forward to the 17th of May when we can all start to enjoy that experience once again. Eating out is part of the joy of London life, the city offers such a wide range of eating places that regular dining out is not the luxury it once was, and the choice and quality on offer is world class. If parks are the lungs of the city, then restaurants and bars are the nervous system. I just hope that after this prolonged shutdown it all starts to work again. It will not be without its challenges, as an example, post Brexit there is a desperate shortage of staff.
My love of dining out was inherited from my father who was both a bon viveur and an Italophile. In the 1960’s and 70’s lots of business was done over lunch, and very little after. His architectural career coincided with the growth of Mario and Franco’s restaurant revolution, stylish, relaxed and authentic Italian food in Enzo Apicella designed interiors. We would often go to Pontevecchio, Girasole, Tiberio and Meridiana, places that felt as light and sunny as the regional Italian food they served. (Alastair Scott Sutherland wrote an excellent book on Mario and Franco called “The Spaghetti Tree').
Over the years we have designed many restaurants and been fortunate to have worked with so many talented chefs and restauranteurs in the process, Anton Mossiman, Alan Yau, Gary Rhodes, Rowley Leigh, Rick Stein, Mark Hix, Corbin and King and Jamie Oliver to name a few. Restaurants rarely last more than 10 years, so a lot of our designs are now just photographs and memories. But of all of the restaurants we designed there are two or three that I remember fondly
City Rhodes was in the now demolished International Press Centre on Shoe Lane, it was a first floor space with restricted ceilings. We worked with Nick Haneka of Price and Myers to design a beautiful stainless steel stair that floated through a hole in the cantilevered slab, no mean engineering feat in itself. The dining space was deep and low, we curved all corners and junctions to blur the lines, diffusers popped out of the ceiling in fibrous plaster blips and downlights did the reverse. We curated a collection of long horizontal Victor Pasmore prints which perfectly suited the abstracted interior.
St Alban was a departure from the norm for Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, Le Caprice and The Ivy were established institutions that they revived. St Alban was very different with a thoroughly modern interior that delivered Mediterranean food from chef Francesco Mazzei. Once again height was a challenge, and the ceiling had to work hard to deliver air light and volume. We designed bespoke furniture and worked closely with Michael Craig Martin who created the windows and wall art. Damien Hirst collaborated with photographs and butterfly paintings.
We completed fourteen Jamie’s Italian restaurants, each one unique and specifically designed for its site, we were afforded a great deal of design freedom, and were able to experiment with unusual materials, design site specific tiles and create one-off light fittings (a test tube chandelier in Bristol for example, a reference to Dr William Budd who carried out vaccine research in the building).
Early on it became clear to me that there are three elements that combine to make a great restaurant, the food, the service and the ambience. As designers we can only control the ambience, but that alone does not make a restaurant great. In fact, there are plenty of good restaurants that meet only two of these criteria. For example the archetypal French brasserie combines great interiors with good food and surly service, and some of the best Asian food in London will be beautifully served in restaurant spaces that have not been “designed”.
In recent years the role of the designer has diminished, the exposed brick, metro tile and bare lightbulb look has become ubiquitous, and doesn’t need an architect, and if you are spending millions on a fit out, it is understandable that you might opt for the security and familiarity of a pastiche but comfortable homage to the grand brasseries.
As we emerge from the pandemic it will be interesting to see who thrives and how the industry will adapt. I suspect local independents who have demonstrated remarkable ingenuity during lockdown will flourish, the chains backed by venture capital will suffer and the classics will pick up where they left off. The shift to outside dining is another positive that has made London feel more European than it ever did as a member of the EU. Hopefully local authorities can now see that streets are far more convivial with diners eating in the spaces where cars once parked.
As Enzo Apicella said, “ A restaurant should never be so awe-inspiring or overpowering that customers feel they must only come on special occasions.”