DROP DEAD GORGEOUS
“It was more than just knockout design and great food, although that was a huge part of it; it was wild and fun."
When it first opened in 1995, London’s Mezzo restaurant could claim to be Europe’s largest eatery, serving in excess of 700 covers every night. Situated in the old Marquee Club, on Soho’s Wardour Street, it captured something of the old club’s showtime spirit, and brought a much needed shot of glamor not only to a forlorn West End but to the London restaurant scene, which had rather lost its way.
“Mezzo followed the opening of Quaglino’s, and both caught a mood of optimism after what had been a vicious little recession in the early nineties” says Des Gunewardena, who together with David Loewi, helped pioneer destination dining in the 1990s and whose most recent collaboration is the equally transformative South Place. “It was more than just knockout design and great food, although that was a huge part of it; it was wild and fun," he adds.
Mezzo was the first time Gunewardena and Loewi worked together: Gunewardena as CEO of Conran Restaurants and Loewi as managing director. Both were quick to see the old nightclub’s potential, aware that a down-at-heel Soho needed a lift from its post-recession gloom. “There was a real energy and a buzz around Mezzo,” recalls Loewi, “that created a kind of momentum and paved the way for a golden era in London dining.”
Just as Ian Schrager had introduced “lobby socializing” to New York with the Paramount Hotel in 1990, so Quaglinos and Mezzo created the “destination restaurant” concept, triggering a paradigm-shift in the way people thought about the London dining experience.
Previously, along with Sir Terence Conran, they had turned their attentions to other run down parts of town, audaciously opening Le Pont de La Tour in the then no-man’s land of Butler’s Wharf. “People said we were nuts!” recalls Gunewardena. “They said no one would travel south of the river just to come to a restaurant.” Still one of their most successful restaurants today, Le Pont de la Tour proved, says Loewi, that if you create a restaurant that is truly excellent, people will come.
This theory was put into practice again and again by the duo. Finding rundown buildings and transforming them into destination restaurants became their calling card, as did their fresh, modern take on classic European food and “drop dead gorgeous” design. (So coveted were the ashtrays in Mezzo’s lavish Art Deco-style interior, says Loewi, that respectable diners would empty them under their tables and take them home).
The pair have topped and tailed their new hotel with two very different restaurants. At street level, 3 South Place showcases the hotel’s bustling atmosphere to passing City folk. Easygoing and informal weekend evenings here recall something of Mezzo’s irreverence, with the hotel’s in-house DJ playing tunes late into the night, delivering a kind of going-out-for-grown-ups atmosphere that appeals to both locals and guests.
But on the top floor of the hotel, their elegant seafood restaurant Angler cultivates a far different mood. Crisp white tablecloths and classic tableware sparkle in the bright rooftop light, courtesy of South Place’s ubiquitous floor-to-ceiling windows. Simple and sophisticated, “it’s about quality,” says Gunewardena, “without being over the top.”
Ironically, the world seems to be coming out of another viscous recession, which begs the question: might history not be repeating itself? If so, Angler and 3 South Place, though different in their outlook and approach, could well be on their way to kick starting yet another golden era in London dining.