How do you reinvent a Mayfair mainstay that’s in need of modernisation, but still wants to be a serious Michelin contender? Adam Hyman looks around The Square to find out
Restaurants are a funny old game. I’ll never forget what one well-known London restaurateur said when it comes to restaurants – “never try and please everyone, it’s a fatal error.” Advice I often find myself telling clients time and time again. And this can of course be applied to all aspects of the offering – from the food, to service, the decor and even the music.
Restaurants come and go, tastes change and customers wants and desires evolve. Over the past decade we’ve witnessed such a dramatic change in the London hospitality industry. It pleases me no end that we no longer have to be terribly British and apologise to our friends in Paris or New York for the state of the food being served in London. In fact, I think London can now teach the aforementioned a thing or two.
Thanks to our booming industry this has opened the door to so many different skills being required for restaurants. Interior design is just one of those. As those of us in the industry know, restaurants don’t just appear as if by magic – as well as the food and service, there’s a huge amount of time, energy, detail and money that goes into making a restaurant look the part. Like our taste in fashion and home decor, we like different things, but now a restaurant can be judged just as much as to how it looks compared to its menu.
There’s been the rise of the squirrel cage lightbulb (I’m sure Polpo’s Russell Norman wishes he had taken a slice of the business producing them in the UK), the handy hook under the dining counter and the now on-trend terrazzo tile popping up across new restaurants in town.
But what is good design? Perhaps this is for another article but it still amazes me how seemingly so many restaurateurs never actually sit down at a table. The table maybe bespoke and the chair ergonomically designed but do the two work together and have they been tested? You can tell immediately when a restaurateur has not sat at a table and dined in their own restaurant. Has anyone checked the chair-to-table height ratio, had a look to see if that stray spotlight is blinding a diner or whether, in fact, you want to break bread there?
The Square in Mayfair was a bastion of old-school fine dining. Heavy tablecloths, chunky leatherbound wine lists and the endless pieces of silver tableware required to eat your way through a tasting menu. Twenty years and two Michelin stars later, Phil Howard and Nigel Platts Martin decided to sell up. I had the site earmarked for another swanky Asian eatery to join the Novikovs, Sexy Fishes and Hakkasans of W1. Chopsticks, DJs and carb-free dining for the international jet set who want to eat in the same restaurants wherever their G6 lands on a weekend.
But no, Marlon Abela, the wealthy restaurateur behind Umu and The Greenhouse snapped up the Bruton Street site. And he’s all about Michelin and fine dining. So what on earth was he going to do with the jaded restaurant opposite Stella McCartney’s boutique. Abela instructed architects and design firm Virgile + Partners, with whom he has previously worked before on his two-Michelin starred restaurant The Greenhouse and his private members’ club Morton’s, both in Mayfair.
Abela’s vision for his newest restaurant was clear in the sense that it must reflect his attitude towards top-quality food but at the same time was a real opportunity to redefine and update the concept of fine dining – one that has become far less on-trend over the past half a decade. Abela and Virgile + Partners wanted The Square to feel urban, contemporary yet timeless. They took inspiration from contemporary art galleries that focus on a very architectural environment but at the same time incorporating design elements that will make it warm and inviting for diners.
The room is almost unrecognisable from its past ownership – far more airy and light – and is a nod towards the way the food is going under new head chef, Clément Leroy. Previously in charge of the kitchen at Guy Savoy in Paris, Leroy will have a menu that relies far less on the butter and cream that many of the old-school Michelin restaurants are known for.
Abela wants the Square to return to two Michelin stars by next year. The design of the space can certainly stand on its own two feet, we’ll have to wait and see what the red book thinks of the food. No pressure, chef.
This article was first published in Issue 13 of CODE Quarterly.