Title: Eating out can be fun
Pages: 28 - 37
Author: Ken and Kate Baynes
Eating out can be fun
by Ken and Kate Baynes
Once upon a time - say about two years ago - most people ate out either in dingier,
Easier versions of those war-time Civic restaurants, or in giant mausoleums apparently undeservingly rescued from the Titanic. If there was some slight difference in gastronomic appeal, the aesthetic impact was pretty identical. But there has been a sudden mushrooming of eating houses which have the impertinence to be fairly cheap, good fun and actually up to date. Ken and Kate Baynes have visited some, and talked (with their mouths full) to restaurant managers, design consultants, and some of the customers.
A recent leader in the SIA Journal' identified the collision that is now taking place between design and fashion, between durability and obsolescence. The basis of the problem seems to be that more and more areas of design are becoming directly bound up in immediate changes of fashion. The question is, does it work ? Is it possible on this sort of basis to carry out any kind of valid design activity ? If one looks at the traditional area in which fashion operates, then the answer is not in doubt. The increasing pressure for quicker and quicker changes in the clothes industry has found the support of brilliant young designers who have transformed the standards of mass produced clothes. Though it may be hard for industrial and graphic designers to admit it, women's clothes are probably the most inventive and aesthetically excellent objects to be seen in the everyday environment.
But clothes are accepted as ephemeral and subject to fashion, and their extreme forms have always been ridiculed as wicked and absurd. The famous Punch cartoon of Victorian ladies being blown over the promenade and out to sea by the wind whistling up their crinolines has the right touch of puritan indignation. A good many industrial designers and design critics look on the spread of fashion to their area in the same way. We shall all be blown out to sea - and
D serve us right. Actually, at this stage, nobody can really say what the ,, result will be. If the clothes designers have been able to accept a very high degree of obsolescence and turn it to good account, why not in a number of other fields ? The difficulty is that there is very little information to go on and, against this background, the aim of this article is to take a more detailed look at the impact of these values on an area where they now operate to a far larger degree than they did before.
A designed revolution
2 At the end of the second world war, catering was a kind of visual and nutritional desert between the works canteen and the Ritz. The minimal and the traditional existed side by side, both impoverished
and to some extent degraded by the years of rationing. The 20-year long road from there to today's catering scene with Golden Eggs, Wimpys and Steak Houses fighting out a brightly lit, competitive battle is, in a way, representative of the social revolution which has overtaken the designer in every field except those involving engineering, medical or other completely rational criteria. If there is not yet quite a Marks and Spencers of the restaurant world, the place for one, with its combination of high design standards depending on an awareness of fashion and the needs of the mass market, is clear enough. In all this, design - if not the designer - has played an important part in a managerial revolution that is still going on.
The scale of mass catering is now enormous. Lyons alone serves three and a half million meals a week, and its operations range from the teashops to The Diplomat in Mayfair, where a meal can easily cost £5. Profits are potentially huge. The Bernis, who run the provincial Bernilnns,are thought to have made £1 million out of speciality catering after starting with a tiny capital. The expenditure on decor is also large. The first Golden Egg cost £7,500, but a further £10,000 was spent on improving it later. Today, the cost of fitting out a speciality restaurant in the centre of London can be £30,000.
It is not easy to identify all the influences that have brought about the present situation. In his excellent book, Mood and Atmosphere in Restaurants 2, Malcolm Newell picks some of the most important: "The rapid growth of Britain's catering industry has led to intense competition among restaurants.... Once the catering industry had proved - after the days of rationing and austerity - that it was possible to produce first rate food, then caterers turned their attention to the environment they were offering their clientele.
"The strongest outside influence was that of the United States.... American design formed a valuable compromise between appearance, function and mass production, making the product available at a price which encouraged the appreciation of better design. And American caterers -their minds less inhibited by traditional methods and a reserved, unadventurous public-were quicker to develop
Barrie & Rockliff, £2 2s
text continued on page 30
Colour and light
The old cracked yellow vitrolite image of mass catering is rapidly being superseded by a new one. Vulgar, but full of life, light and colour, it is proving a tremendous commercial success.
2 The old order struggling on: an ABC in Victoria Street.
3 The new order dominates the scene: the exterior of the Leicester Square Golden Egg. Light and colour are used deliberately to attract the customer in off the street. Architect Geoffrey A. Crockett.
4 Golden Eggs often have a whole wall of light. At the Victoria Street branch, it is used effectively in a recent interior which is more sophisticated than the earlier Golden Eggs. Architect David A. P. Broobbank & Associates.
Gimmicks and exoticism
The context of the new speciality restaurants is entertainment. Effective gimmicks like the Golden Eggs' huge eggshaped menus play their part in surroundings which more or less consistently suggest a particular theme.
5 The country in Leicester Square - cartwheels, onions and harvest loaves: Fortes' The Prime Cut in Cranbourn Street.
Inquiry Eating out can be fun
speciality catering in response to an acute shortage of trained staff....
"After the second World War, the Englishman started to travel more widely.... A society began to evolve in which people had more money to spend on entertainment and comfort, and these people had a broader experience of living on which to evaluate the facilities that were available...."
These points were borne out by the conversations we had with people actually eating in the restaurants we looked at, and by the managements of the large catering companies we spoke to. A typical comment, from a lady drinking coffee in one of the Oxford Street Golden Eggs, was that it looked "less tatty" than the Lyons teashop across the street. Alan da Costa of Empire Catering, which runs Wimpy Houses under licence from Pleasure Foods Ltd (a Lyons subsidiary) and the Bacon, Egg and Mini Steak Houses, told us that he tried to achieve a relaxing atmosphere and the impression of evident cleanliness. A managing director of Lyons told us how the firm was deliberately experimenting with restaurants aimed at the known tastes of particular groups - teenage office workers in one place, suburban housewives out shopping in another. But what interested us in visiting the Kaye brothers' Golden Eggs was the very wide variety of people using them. Their dream worlds seems to attract a significant number of brief-case-carrying, middle aged gentlemen as well as the more predictable office juniors.
Escapism - an historical fact When we talked to David Brookbank, architect of most of the Golden Eggs and a large number of other speciality restaurants, he reminded us that escapism in restaurant design is far from new. Escapism of one kind or another is probably implicit in all interior design from Versailles to the Tudor booking office of St Pancras. It is easy to see the Golden Eggs as a contemporary version of the Victorian gin palace, or a recreation of the floridity of the London pub.
Perhaps the key element in Malcolm Newell's catalogue of influences is "more money to spend on entertainment". Wicked or not, more and more people are expecting to find their lives amusing, and the stereotypes of entertainmentfairground, film, theatre, television - are breaking down. Young people particularly expect to find the real world more farcical than it in fact is, and the ideal of this attitude is easy to see in the beautiful inconsequence of episode and happening in films like The Knack and Help! This may seem to be a rather sophisticated judgement when compared with the actual appearance of a Golden Egg, but the flavour of Marx Brothers excess and roller coaster vulgarity is there all right. And it finds an even more direct expression in the Chips With Everything restaurant which Main Wolff and Partners has recently designed for Lyons.
It is very difficult to decide whether or not the present design standards of speciality restaurants are as good as they could be within the criteria of entertainment that we have been discussing. The Golden Eggs themselves seem to be based to quite a large degree on the intuition of their owners, the Kaye brothers. Philip Kaye enjoys the vulgarity of the restaurants, and their particular kind of drama is as much a result of personality as of business calculation. The Golden Eggs are changing, and the days of the maddest opulence are over. Some of the older ones are already being rebuilt in a style that is still full of colour and excitement, but less eclectic and stagey. It almost seems as if the Golden Eggs may make a successful leap from the Hollywood spectacular to the cooler atmosphere of the Beatles films and op art fashions. If so, it will be an interesting example of
6 and 7 A harem in Swiss Cottage - Spanish rugs and 'erotic' ceramics. Golden Egg. Architect David A. P. Brookbank Associates. Ceramics by William Newland.
8 Grannie's kitchen in the Charing Cross Road. A neat little Victorian pastiche in gilt, red and black, complete with an old range, period lettering and pots and pans: Lyons' The Sizzling Sausage. Designer Ken Moore.
Inquiry Eating out can be fun
mass design pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. That the tendency is already there can be seen by comparing the Douglas Fairbanks harem of a restaurant at Swiss Cottage, 6 and 7, with the new Golden Egg in Victoria Street, 4, 9, 11 and 16.
Empire Catering also reflects the personal choice of its head man. No designer as such is employed, and the particular blend of straightforwardness and near elegance (if you don't look at the plastics tomatoes full of sauce) is the result of Alan da Costa's own view of what his restaurants should look like. He feels that too much gimmickry is self defeating and that his solution will be valid long after his rivals have sunk huge sums in successive rebuilding programmes. Except for one or two very sophisticated interiors that Lyons has used for a few carefully chosen restaurants, the Wimpy Houses come closest of all the mass catering environments to the simple restraint of a modern, 'architecturally correct' interior.
Lyons, which is an old hand at mass catering, brings a good deal of knowledge and expertise to its design problems. It was probably the first firm in Britain to get down to speciality catering on a large scale, and opened a bacon and egg restaurant in the Coventry Street Corner House in 1954. This was followed by the Grill and Cheese restaurants and by Wimpys. Lyons' London Steak Houses represent speciality catering at a rather different level. With interiors by Dennis Lennon, the Steak Houses are straightforward and elegant. On the whole, though, Lyons' mass catering interiors have lacked the bright convinced vulgarity of the grass roots Golden Eggs. The firm's new Chips With Everything, with its free juke box and deliberately 'pin table' inferior, is still an experiment.
There has been a good deal of speculation about how far the Golden Egg approach to restaurant design is the result of carefully calculated market research. As we have seen, the Kaye brothers have relied on their own feelings and on intelligent calculation. Lyons makes deliberate use of market research, but does a good deal of testing on a 'suck-itand-see' basis, opening the prototype of a proposed chain of restaurants in a typical area and watching the customer's reaction. Chips With Everything is the result of a much more calculated piece of research. The initial designs were considerably modified after discussions between Michael Wolff (of Main Wolff and Partners) and a motivational research consultant. The appearance of Chips is the result of a sophisticated development process, and its success could obviously lead to a wider use of this kind of research. Visually, Chips has its own strong individual flavour that is, in fact, far more restrained than even the least elaborate Golden Egg. In effect, it is an extremely intelligent piece of eclecticism, j using romantic 'pop' elements to create something new. The balance it strikes between the smelly, tawdry, gorgeous world of genuine pierhead pop and the growing sophistication of the mass audience is a very interesting and probably valid interpretation of contemporary fashion.
Fraud and sleight of hand It is too easy to dismiss the new restaurants as some kind of elaborate fraud in which a gullible public is persuaded to pay for prettied up surroundings instead of high quality food. The interesting thing is that the food is in the same kind of transitional
ional stage as the interior design. It is about a similar distance from the worst of the 'beans and chips' era as the decor is from cracked vitrolite. Clearly, the caterers themselves would argue that the expensive surroundings work in the same way as advertising - by promoting a mass demand they make it possible to serve good food at a low price. The argument is partly borne out in practice, but again it is too easy a piece of intellectual sleight of hand.
The Golden Eggs are not simply places to go to get a heap of decent food at a low price. Many works canteens succeed admirably in performing this particular piece of magic. As much as anything else, they are a bolt hole from the drabness of ordinary city surroundings, and it is noticable that the restaurants are used a lot as meeting places for a cup of coffee as well as for whole meals.
If we were to sum up our own impressions, gained among ubiquitous chips, miles of coffee cups and Polynesian wimpies (wimpies with pineapple on top), it would be to say that the pressure of fashion and changing taste had begun to transform popular catering for the better. In a sense, it hardly matters that some conventionally 'correct' design solutions have been failures. The point is that the values that are now going into the restaurant interiors are design values, however crudely expressed. They are not grey non-design. They are not scuffed yellow plastics and pale pink ceilings. More positively, they are more lively than many architects' and designers' sage green good taste. If they reflect a growing public awareness of colour, visual excitement and richness, it is a bit absurd to complain that they are vulgar. They are a tremendous, even a fantastic, advance on the vacuum that existed a few years ago. And
it is only fair to say that we often enjoyed the spoof for its own Rococo sake. The places are one hell of a good laugh really, and this is praise not criticism.
Attention to detail
The atmosphere of the new speciality restaurants is made tip of many carefully thought out details. Uniforms,
place.settings and mad decoration all form part of the caterer's efforts to popularise the experience of eating out. The
food itself is often basically simple, a superior and more elaborate version of the traditional beans, egg and
chips. Essentially it is foolproof to cook and serve. Many of the
restaurants are well laid out and give waiters the shortest possible
distance to travel between cooking area and table. A number of Golden
Eggs have separate coffee and dining sections.
a Ceramic door push by William Newland at the Victoria Street Golden
10 A Wimpy House place setting. Only the plastics tomato remains from
the old days. Empire Catering Ltd.
tt A Golden Egg place setting. Space is at a premium in mass catering
restaurants. Some of the early Golden Eggs seem cramped and
uncomfortable. Later ones, like the Victoria Street restaurant where this
setting was photographed, achieve a far more spacious feeling. Menu
designed by Philip Kaye.
Speciality catering has grown up since the days when it implied sandwiches or sordid hamburgers. At steak house level, it has produced its own particular elegance; at Golden Egg level, a wildly exuberant paraphernalia of forms and colours. In between, variations of every kind. 12 The London Steak House in the Old Brompton Road. J. Lyons & Co Ltd. Architect Dennis Lennon. 13 Empire Catering avoids extremes of gimmickry. Its Wimpy Houses are straightforward, with modern prints on the wall. At coffee time, the Vigo Street branch sustains exhausted shoppers up from Bromley. 14 and 15 Chips With Everything in Chancery Lane, designed for Lyons by Main Wolffand Partners Ltd. is planned for young people escaping from dreary offices. If successful, it could be the prototype of a chain. 16 Lady with birds: interior of the Victoria Street Golden Egg, with ceramics by William Newland.