Chris’Blog – Restaurant Design
Restaurant Design is something very close to my heart. I have always liked architecture and design, so I count myself so lucky to have worked for Sir Terence Conran for ten years; his iconic style set the bar high for London restaurant design from the eighties onwards, and he very generously allowed many of the team to be involved in much of the look and feel of his designs.
Being a Francophile, I have always loved visiting the great Parisian Bistrots and Brasseries, not just for the food but also the wonderful design, and when money allowed, the Michelin-starred temples whose design ran the whole spectrum from classic to space age.
Restaurant design is one of the first things we take in when we arrive for a meal, each of us has an opinion of course, but one thing for sure, it shapes the experience of a being there. Personally I love the kaleidoscope of restaurant styles and can often sit in one, just happy to be there because of the design. The secret is of course creating a canvas to the experience of the service, food and drink. To get this right is a complex mix of vision, taste, the right design team and not always, but more often than not, money!
Design is very personal and subjective, so to appeal to the many guests that hopefully come through the door is a difficult task with so much to consider. I will attempt here, to share my short view of restaurant design, in a small space which could easily take volumes.
Most restaurateurs work with a professional design team, and Galvin Restaurants have almost exclusively worked with Steve LaBouchardiere director of DesignLSM, simply because we had seen and liked their work prior. Very quickly we developed a great relationship with them, which is very collaborative, challenging, and not afraid to adapt where necessary.
So to start we must consider the concept, and work up a brief for the designer. For instance when we opened our first restaurant, Bistrot de Luxe, we had very little money, we wanted to offer very reasonable French Bistrot cooking in Parisian style surroundings, that were cosy and comfortable using classic Bentwood chairs and banquettes.
The space was a tricky “L” shape but we thought we could use this to our advantage because Terence Conran had taught me that a room should always, slowly reveal itself, so that it can take multiple visits to explore and never become boring. The restaurant had previously been owned and designed by another great restaurant designer Alan Yau. It was a concept where Asia met Italy so we couldn’t use much or the existing design other than the bathrooms and a great kitchen that needed some conversion from Italian to French, but importantly a kitchen that felt like home to Jeff and I, as we knew we would be living in there for some time to come! Steve La Bouchardiere had some marvellous ideas for the wood panelling and antique mirrors which made it possible for everyone able to see everyone else, a voyeur’s palace.
We spent a lot of time working up ideas with Steve from DesignLSM. Fortunately I have hundreds of cookery books and magazines we shared to get and feel of what we wanted. The team at DesignLSM then went on to explore further and also has great ideas about the frontage on Baker street, which is after all, a great Boulevard with wide pavements, perfectly Parisian!
I should also mention lighting which is key in setting the mood. Steve found some beautiful globes which identified the Bistrot for years to come. In almost every picture of the perfect restaurant scene, something attractive we realised was a warm amber glow, it is something that contents our souls. I am going to do the lighting design injustice here for sake of space, just so far as to say, this is such an important piece of design, some would even say lighting is everything; and there are certainly some masters of this wizardry, with complex computer controlled lighting throughout the day to set the scenes, it really is another world. However, it can also be much more simple, as Oliver Peyton once told me when we opened Galvin at Windows, “Candle the place out, there is nothing more attractive” and I think he is right in some circumstances.
Keith Hobbs design company United Design Partnership, developed Galvin at Windows, interestingly he was a head designer working with Terence Conran on many projects, such as Quaglinos. I liked Keith, he is a very swashbuckling designer and great fun to be with. The design was quite advanced when we came on board but I liked the understated glamour that Keith and his team carved out of the space, and any iconic site like Galvin at Windows, so high in the sky, will always have the views to content with, just like the food and service interestingly, but I believe we have found a great harmony there.
Back to the design process, after consultation with the designer about the concept, the development and arrival of the mood boards happens, something we all look forward to, because once it is revealed, there in front of you, the restaurant starts to take life and becomes real. You can begin to use all the senses to imagine what it might look like. You then need to go out to tender and receive the quotes, the painful bit, forever spending way above your budget, this is where you need a high degree of negotiation skills and honesty! What goes and what stays, all I can say is that we have taken a lot of risks and held our breath praying that we will be busy enough to pay the money back, but in seriousness, we learnt early on that less is more, insomuch as quality lasts, and the one thing you don’t want to have to do in a busy restaurant, is to keep closing because items of furniture or designed pieces fail and need to be replaced.
Another project I remember that stands out in my mind to have been be involved with, was The Wolseley, working with Chris Corbin and Jeremy King was one of my most fortunate periods in my career, like Terence Conran, they allowed me to share their vision and even travel through eastern Europe to look at Café culture first hand, their attention to detail was staggering, Chris and Jeremy’s mantra was “to create a restaurant we want to go in” and I shall never forget their immortal words “that everything in their restaurants must bear scrutiny” which if you get chance to visit any of their properties, you will see for yourself. Something else that Jeremy and Chris taught me was that you needed to make the guest feel like the owner of the restaurant, so they have their favourite tables, chairs and know the layout intimately, it took me a while to realise this gem of advice.
I fondly remember visiting the late great David Collins Studio with Chris and Jeremy to see the mood board he had prepared for The Wolseley. After much discussion about the design, we walked into a huge studio in Chelsea, and there in front of us was The Wolseley on a board…..just a breathtaking translation from their minds to the mood board. There was of course much tweaking and change over the course of the next few months, but I shall never forget that moment.
La Chapelle gave us another exciting challenge. This time we had found a stunning building 130 years old in Spitalfields, and wanted a De Luxe Brasserie, or as Jeff put it so well, a fine dining restaurant with the edges knocked off! This time because of the incredible architecture, Steve La Bouchardiere suggested it was more what we left out, than what put into it.
La Chapelle was a labour of love and many times after the design and site meetings I left seriously exhausted, it was also Grade 2 listed, so lots of ideas would take time to be honed before presenting for planning. Our brief was for a classic look, with a mix of leather banquettes and luxury chairs, antique mirrors and good eye lines across the room. All natural materials, stone, marble, zinc and quality woods, and above all, letting the room speak for itself.
The lights that we settled with were inspired from All Saints church in Brixton. The vicar kindly allowed our lighting designer, Into Lighting, in to sketch them. Because of the chapel feel to the building, we felt it needed something reverent which didn’t steal the show, but rather allowed the viewer to see through the “Halo” effect to see the full scale of the 90ft ceiling.
Galvin Green Man pub was another challenge. A 700 year old Essex pub that had been badly damaged in the past including a big fire, it was boarded up, derelict awaiting its uncertain fate. We vowed to the locals we would bring it back to life, and add a restaurant, built completely sympathetically to the original feel, using materials as similar to the originals as possible. We also promised to keep the “pub a pub”, and the restaurant as an elegant country addition. I have to say Steve and his team at DesignLSM yet again produced something that is so beautiful and will be for generations to come, I am also thrilled that along the way Steve and his team won multiple national design awards for each and every site for their design. Most importantly we receive warm approval from our amazing customers who each make them their own, visiting us time after time, we have been extraordinarily fortunate.
To conclude for I must, once the main design has gone in, another fun part is the soft design: curtains, cushions, pictures, posters, object d’art, the DNA that makes a restaurant so personal, a restaurant and never stops evolving, just like the food, wines and service, making it a living art.
Which is my favourite restaurant design? Far too many favourite restaurants to list. but if there is to be one, check out for sheer voluptuous design: Train Bleu Gare de Lyon Paris.