What makes a restaurant interior stylish or even beautiful is hard to quantify; it’s most accurate to say that you know it when you see it.
Looking back at London openings in 2017, it’s not unfair to say that design has — often — been led by a cookie cutter approach brilliantly dissected in the following piece. This isn’t always a wilful fault on the behalf of the restaurant or the architect: in a year somewhat dominated by openings in ~~developments~~ (NOVA, St. James, Flatiron Square, Bloomberg) the potential for winning design has sometimes been stunted by prevailing aesthetics. The overwhelming appetite for swiftly constructed, fast-casual sites has also kicked design as priority, or guiding principle, to an unforgiving curb.
In spite of such difficult terrain, individual stunners have put their credos above the parapet throughout 2017 on a range of scales: hyper-modern industrial behemoths; 1930s Italian chic; lampshades on lampshades on lampshades. Here are ten restaurants where the lighting is just so, the chairs easy on the eye, and the rooms do indeed approach the beautiful.
What: Isaac McHale (he of The Clove Club and Young Turks) opened his second ‘Britalian’ restaurant in Clerkenwell right at the end of 2016. It sneaks its way in.
Key players: Isaac McHale, Alexander Waterworth Interiors
Why: Oak, brass and marble unite rooms without disrupting their individual character; the bar shimmers with old Italian glamour, while the dining rooms soften, with more wood and leather than marble.
What: Opened in May 2017, Shing-Tat and Wai-Ting Chung and Erchen Chang opened XU on Rupert Street as a complimentary and contrasting follow-up to their cult first restaurant, BAO.
Key players: Shing-Tat Chung, Wai-Ting Chung, Erchen Chang, BradyWilliams Studio, JKS Group
Why: The trio describe XU as a representation of 1930s Taipei, and the green panelling and analog clock brings to mind a luxurious station car. XU also features possibly the most beautiful table for one in the city.
What: Fine-dining with a Gaelic accent on Old Street: Nuala opened in injury time for 2017, with Chiltern Firehouse, Heston Blumenthal and Noma pedigree on the books.
Key players: Niall Davidson, Colin McSherry, White Collar Factory.
Why: Gaelic flourishes include a huge portrait styled on Davidson’s sister for whom the restaurant is named; a huge fire pit anchors the dining room, calling to mind both primal origins and modern Californian exteriors.
What: The second London opening from Argentine restaurateur Juan Santa Cruz, following Casa Cruz in Notting Hill.
Key players: Juan Santa Cruz, Offset Architects
Why: The clubby Mayfair restaurant not only looks magnificent, it feels special. Its dark wood, gold fixtures and Napoleonic blues lend the room a moody decadence too rarely given to new sites.
What: Margot Henderson and Melanie Arnold’s much-lauded Rochelle Canteen — set in a sleepy corner of Shoreditch — moved into The Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall this year.
Key players: Margot Henderson, Melanie Arnold, Stefan Kalmar, Alvar Aalto
Why: The interior compliments Henderson and Arnold’s food to a tee: understated, precise, tasteful, beautiful. Finnish architect Alvar Aalto’s furniture has a utilitarian slant that matches The ICA’s recent, stripped-back refurb, while recalling Rochelle’s original site.
What: Hackney exponent of cave-bistronomie extraordinnaire, cooking impeccably sourced ingredients with an approach mindful of global inflections. Backed up by a stonking — mostly natural — wine list.
Key players: Charlie Mellor, Tom Anglesea
Why: Mostly lighting. Overhanging lampshades combine with candles to create a hazy, alluring glow; paired with the central island — glasses above, bottles below — it’s everything a Parisian cave aspires to be, only with a Hackneyish overlay.
What: Hong Kong export from the former owner of iconic Paris restaurant Le Chateaubriand, serving ~~eclectic~~ cuisine at the ritzy Mandrake Hotel.
Key players: Fred Peneau, Charles Pelletier, Rami Fustok
Why: Unapologetic, place-to-be-seen, it-attracting glamour. The main dining room’s unconventional purple-green-more green colour scheme somehow just works, while 28 paint processes have gone into making the almost obscenely red private dining room just-so-scarlet.
What: A phoenix from the flames for Edson and Natalie Diaz-Fuentes. Forced to close their original cantina on Rivington Street in summer 2016 — the site now occupied by Butchies — the pair found a perfect second home in Borough for 2017.
Key players: Edson Diaz-Fuentes, Natalie Diaz-Fuentes, Adam Hyman
Why: Restaurants designed with heritage in mind often fall victim to stereotype, kitsch, or at worst, brazen cultural appropriation. Not so here. From the custom-built bar right through to the bench seating decked with bright cushions, Santo Remedio exudes genuine, generous hospitality.
What: A seafood-focused, ingredient-driven wunderkind from the team behind Primeur, borrowing a taste for natural wine, sharing dishes and smart water vessels from its forbear.
Key players: David Gingell, Jérémie Cometto-Lingenheim
Why: Manages to tread the line between its industrial origins and warm elegance with absolute panache. Small accents — flowers to divide communal tables, worn water jugs — complete an aesthetic designed to serve and delight. Also a place where a blackboard menu is part of the identity of the restaurant, rather than an insubstantial flourish.
What: Chef Leandro Careirra’s first fully-fledged restaurant, temperate on the heels of his wildly popular L.C. pop-up at Climpson’s Arch from 2015.
Key players: Leandro Careirra, Cameron Dewar, Loh Peng
Why: An ultra-modern take on the industrial look, all concrete, utilitarian wood, and imposing spotlights. The bar features an impressionist spin on terrazzo, as well as pleasingly asymmetrical shelves for sparkling glasses.