The point of dining out in London, besides a meal of course, is being inside someone else’s tantalizing design story. Sometimes that story is an interpretation of decorum, and better for it; London’s St. John, by chef and architect Fergus Henderson, is the best example of how to dial down on overwrought design in praise of the original bones of a space. It's the opposite case at Tramshed, with a Damien Hirst cow installation at its center—a needed focal point. Whatever the aesthetic, when a restaurant opens in London, it is tested with winning and maintaining the attention of capital by way of clever and entertaining design.
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London does not lack creative individuals that dream, design and build really fabulous spaces. Mixologists, Central Saint Martin design majors, Noma-trained sous chefs, and so on, are some of the people behind the city’s most successful and design-focused restaurants. Restaurateurs David Waddington and Pablo Flack, for example, collaborated with one of London's greatest design talents, Carmody Groarke, to retrofit of an old gas station to become The Filling Station, a restaurant and bar. “The project was a beacon for new development, a radical change of purpose," says Waddington. "From a space for vehicles into a space for sitting still, eating, drinking, and talking.” While The Filling Station is no more, Waddington's talent for repurposing abandoned places helped usher in a crop of new, trendy restaurants around the once-lackluster transit hub of King's Cross.
On Hoi Polloi, a New British restaurant at the Ace Hotel, the pair worked with Universal Design Studio’s Edward Barber, Jay Osgerby, and Sacha Leong to build a space with the space and volume of grand brasseries in mind, a space for "the people" to dine, drink, meet, dance, celebrate. They collaborated with Bluebottle, a company owned by Frans Burrows, on their first restaurant, Bistroteque, which opened ten years ago. These teams help pare down existing structures to its industrial ancestry and play with lighting. Nowadays, this aesthetic is standard, with its own subcategory of design vocabulary.
Of course, restauranteurs study their competitors to see where the design needle is moving, and can be inspired by someone else’s efforts. Waddington, for example, likes London’s Aquavit because it’s beautifully put together and very Nordic. “I love the acres of wooden paneling, and the private dining rooms featuring the prints of Josef Frank," he says. Martin Brudnizki, the founder of Martin Brudnizki Design Studio, took his design cues for Aquavit from Gunnar Asplund’s Gothenburg City Hall in Sweden. Brudnizki says the wanted to showcase the best in Swedish design, like Swedish Brannlyckan marble, Josef Frank fabrics, and Olafur Eliasson wall hangings. He used Svenskt Tenn furniture to tie it all together, so that restaurant resonates true mid-century Swedish design. “I think restaurants are about more than food now,” says Brudnizki. “They embody a lifestyle. Design plays a large part in this, by helping provide a place which encourages the act of gathering and relaxing.”
Waddington also likes Colbert, "a lovely and rather camp French bistro on Sloane Square designed by David Collins Studio. The postcards pinned behind the bar are cute and the mosaic floor is divine.” While he never worked with the late David Collins, he admires the studio greatly, claiming that they produced and continue to produce examples of iconic restaurant interiors, ones that promise glamour, comfort and the best lighting ever.
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Simon Rawlings, the Creative Director of David Collins Studio, says that London no longer follows trends, and therein lies its strength: "I think we have such creativity, diversity, passion, and drive," says Rawlings. “London has great classics, new ideas, adventurous concepts," and, most importantly, "chefs that are doing really incredible things, which means restaurants [are more interesting] to design.”
To see the rest of our Food52 Guide to London, head here.