Take a seat in London’s most scene-defining spaces
Words by Tom Howells. Illustrations by Phoebe Rutherford
“There is no difference between the choices you make about the furniture you buy, the clothes you wear, the flowers you have in your home and the food you put on your plate. It's all a reflection of the same thing.” – the late Terence Conran, The Observer, 2003
In the beginning there was nothing. Then there was Conran. The man who democratised design and sold lifestyle to Britain – Habitat, Heal’s, etc. – also defined the way London eats. His head was firmly in the trough: some might say he was restaurateur first, designer second. In 1953, his inaugural diner, the Soup Kitchen, brought Pronvençal light to the murk of post-war London. Three years later, Conran Design Group was born.
Soup Kitchen begat Orrery, begat the Neal Street Restaurant (below Conran’s design studio, with a menu drawn by Hockney, and a pre-fame Carluccio on the hobs), begat Bibendum (led by chef’s chef Simon Hopkinson), begat the Design Musuem’s Blueprint Café (where Jeremy Lee reigned). Scores more. All offered meticulous, ingredient-led food in beautiful spaces. “Places,” said writer Jonathan Meades in 2001, “where [Conran] could propagate his notions about design.”
The mantle, cracked by late-era doldrums and corporate buyouts, has been passed in pieces. To Tom Dixon, for one, embedded in Conran lineage by becoming Habitat’s head of design in 1998. He also took to restaurants, launching Design Research Studio in 2007, to create “extraordinary spaces globally”. We find Conranian ley lines through Dock Kitchen (opened as an extension to Dixon’s Ladbroke Grove showroom in 2009) and the steely Coal Office (which appeared in 2018, the “beating heart” of Dixon’s King’s Cross HQ).
Combining workplace and restaurant was canny: Coal Office is both product testbed and immersive showroom, where diners can interact with Dixon’s designs IRL. “It’s impossible,” he says, gleefully, “to conceive 2,000 people a week hanging out for a couple of hours in a furniture shop.” It also marked a shift in his own design purview: from the physical – the importance of a comfy chair, say – to the intangible. Acoustics. Smells. Luminosity. Sensory stuff. A segue from the “hard bits... to the journey through the space, rather than just ‘Instagram’ moments.”
Tracking the past decade in London, technicolour maximalism, soaped-wood serenity and statement starchitect inflections abound. Take Zaha Hadid’s curvilinear Magazine in the Serpentine’s Sackler extension, a disciplined synthesis of old and new that remains inventive. Or India Mahdavi’s overhaul of the Gallery at Sketch, a revival first in pink, and now gold. Though it might, at first, present as pure playfulness, Mahdavi has said: “In this masculine atmosphere, I had to assert myself in front of this cubic room and introduce my vision: that of colour and gentleness.” These are, without doubt, spaces with impact. Though, there’s also something to be said for the more holistic merging of restaurant and multidisciplinary design.
Enter Dan Preston: a former sculptor whose full- service studio has fashioned some of modern London’s definitive eateries. His vision is symbiotic and unobtrusive. There’s the timber-panelled clatter of Brat and Smoking Goat; Kiln’s sheet- metal minimalism, a cool foil to its infernal clay-pot cookery; and, especially, the concrete planes of Sri Lankan joint Paradise, a brutalist bolthole in thrall to Geoffrey Bawa’s tropical modernism.
Chef and designer share an identical philosophy, Preston believes. “We're designing, we're crafting, working with materials in a way that feels right, and not getting them to do something they're not meant to,” he says. “The space and food sit humbly next to and complement each other. We're not trying to be flashy. [We’re] trying to make nice spaces.”
Let’s flip it around. Like mice on the Tube, stare hard enough and you’ll see that eclectic artistry underpins many of our great restaurateurs and chefs. Fergus Henderson trained in architecture before clanking pans at St. John. As did Mei Mei’s Elizabeth Haigh, at CSM. Max Rocha’s Café Cecilia was part-conceived by his father, fashionista John; while Toklas, at 180 Strand, was opened by Frieze co-founders Amanda Sharp and Matthew Slotover. Keep digging, more surface.
No one has amalgamated art and eating as seamlessly as Bao’s creative director and co-founder (and Slade grad) Erchen Chang. Superficially, Bao is a hyper-stylish micro-chain, inspired by the Xiao Chi houses, nocturnal grills and noodle shops of Taiwan. In practice, it’s a gastronomic work of art. Here, Chang’s meticulous visual and narrative worldbuilding is as important as the (brilliant) menu. Every element – from the logo, based on the melancholy figure of the Taiwanese salaryman; to each restaurant’s dreamlike interior; and the painterly plates and drinks themselves – is loaded with cultural subtext. The aim, she explains, was to transmogrify a heightened version of Taiwan’s epicurean culture into an alternative, almost cinematic setting.
“I love the word cinematic – it’s literally picking out the essence of it,” she explains. “Enlarging these eateries, trimming away all the clutter and bringing that into London.” Chang calls this approach: “‘Think food, serve design’... Using a creative solution to distil inspiration into the narrative of our world.” Fold in aspirations to further digitise the Bao experience – fleshing out its characters and locations in a kind of foodie, metaverse theatre – and we might just be seeing the new-what- next for the way London eats.