For his opening salvo, Oliver Peyton revolutionised London nightlife. His 1980s clubs RAW and City of Angels incorporated outlandish, fabulous, striped sculptural interiors in the basement of the YMCA on Tottenham Court Road. Entry was by metal membership card or possession of a micro audio cassette with a member’s name recorded on it. At the same time, he brought Absolut and Sapporo to the UK, when both products looked so futuristic that they might have been beamed down from the bar of Stanley Kubrick’s set for Discovery One. Then he opened his Gruppo restaurants: Coast, Mash and Mash & Air, each with its own remarkable Marc Newson-designed, Andy Martin-constructed interior. There was also the Martin-designed Isola and the Atlantic Bar & Grill, the ultimate 1990s YBA hang out (these days the space is home to Chris Corbin and Jeremy King’s Brasserie Zédel). Now Peyton is the king of the gallery scene, having championed fine dining at Somerset House, and enjoyed huge success with restaurants at the National Gallery, Kew Gardens and the Wallace Collection. At the end of 2013 he won a seven-year catering contract for the space that Foster + Partners is redeveloping at the Imperial War Museum. His latest project is the introduction of Keeper’s House, a new restaurant, bar and café with adjoining and upstairs member’s spaces at the Royal Academy of Arts – bringing new life to one of London’s most spectacular buildings and courtyards.
Civilian London: Do you ever pass the spaces where Mash and Coast used to be and wish they were still there? They were among the most beautiful, spectacular restaurants ever to open in London and should have been listed.
Oliver Peyton: They were too far ahead of their time in terms of the look and “the curve”. I keep on thinking that I’d like to do something with Marc [Newson] again, but we’d do it differently now. At the time, I wanted to slap people around a bit and really show them something modern, something they hadn’t seen before. And life is a funny thing – it’s like having a Bowie T-shirt from one of the early concerts or a signed Sex Pistols single in the 1970s; we didn’t think of the restaurants as places that should be preserved. We were just doing “stuff”.
So why did they close?
As with all things, it was money. The costs rocketed. We weren’t losing money at Mash in London, but we sold because I hated the landlord who was trying to up the cost of everything. He was trying to charge for the seating on the pavement.
And how about the space in Manchester, Mash & Air? You opened up there at what seemed like just the right time, in the mid-90s. Everyone wanted to be there. Marc Newson’s interior was more beautiful than anything in London, and Manchester seemed like the coolest place on earth.
We kept getting robbed. We had tens of thousands of pounds stolen from the safe. A Sam Taylor-Wood original – that Sam had given me herself – disappeared, straight off the wall. The Cheetham Hill gang that had been “taxing” the Haçienda £1 per person through their door came for us after the Haçienda closed. When we first opened Mash & Air, I hired a TV crew to pretend to be filming us, because we were getting hassled. But they didn’t give a shit. I remember [gang member] Paul Carroll coming to the door at ten to two one morning and our doorman wouldn’t let him in, so he put the doorman in intensive care. We took the security video to the police, but they said there wasn’t enough evidence. Two weeks later, Paul Carroll came in for dinner, with the police. I remember once my manager called me, just after 9pm, and there had been a shoot out. He said, “Oliver, I’m going home now, and I’m not coming back.”
I don’t understand why people queue up for two hours for fast food. It’s stupid. Why would you do it? I don’t understand it
Art has always been a big part of what you do, and you are now very much aligned with London’s landmark galleries and museums. The art world and the way the public visit galleries has changed so much over the last few decades. Has it altered your approach to the place of art in restaurants?
You know, we commissioned Richard Prince to do something specifically for Isola when it opened in Knightsbridge in 1999. It took two years to make it happen. I loved his cowboy pictures. Then people came in and never even mentioned it. The same happened with the art at Mash.
But you really helped make the name of certain Young British Artists. There was the light piece by Tim Noble and Sue Webster at the Atlantic. That really introduced them to a lot of people for the first time.
Ha! Try telling them that.
Well, if nothing else it got them in a Madonna video. So what do you think the main differences are between the art world then and now?
Art became a commodity. Hedge funders starting buying things that they didn’t even look at. I don’t have the ability to buy a lot of art now. Back during the YBA period you could take a risk. I remember being at an auction and a Mondrian sold for £3,000. Now look at the kind of thing that sells for over a million. But you know, restaurants are a commodity too.
And how have things changed there?
When I was running clubs, we always had a door policy where we would let every type of person in. At the Atlantic, I wanted my mother to be able to sit next to a tranny. Now if you go to a restaurant in Shoreditch, it’s all Shoreditch people. And Shoreditch is oversubscribed and worn. Same with Notting Hill – it’s all Notting Hill people. It’s depressing. I don’t want to run a tribal restaurant. I went to a really good restaurant with my wife the other evening and she was the only woman in the whole place, and all the men were in suits. She found it really intimidating.
But London is really in the spotlight for restaurants right now.
I was cycling down South Carriage Drive by The Serpentine this morning, in the sunshine, and I felt it was the best city in the world. I want people to feel that about our restaurants. I don’t understand why people queue up for two hours for fast food. It’s stupid. Why would you do it? I don’t understand it.
It’s insanity. But context is everything, isn’t it?
I hope I am revitalising people’s perceptions about how London galleries are being used. Galleries are free in London. If you go to the Louvre or an equivalent space in New York, it’ll cost you $20. I want these restaurants to be a part of the city. Come and have a cup of tea in the morning, go and see a painting and go to work.
The menu at Keeper’s House at the Royal Academy is very accomplished – Ivan Simeoli has developed something that is post-Noma and Fäviken. But what was the starting point for the visual aspects of the space itself?
We wanted living artists to feel like it’s their place, a Groucho Club for artists. And it will take years to get it right. It’s also a lot about the Royal Academy courtyard outside, after dark. Walking through it is one of the greatest experiences you can have in London. Downstairs we tried to create a club feel with the red and green interior. It’s a bit old fashioned, a bit moody. We wanted to make a statement with the bar. And elsewhere we have used a lot of stove enamel. We tried to produce something in stove enamel with Chris Ofili, but it didn’t work out. Some of the new work on show is for sale, some isn’t. Gary Hume and Grayson Perry have done a few things for us. It will be good for young artists. We also looked through the archives at the Royal Academy to revive certain pieces – all the reliefs that are hanging had been in storage.
And the furniture?
I am always careful with design. People try to copy you. And I hate walking into a restaurant and saying, “Oh, there’s a Cappellini chair.” David Chipperfield did the interior so the pieces are just for us.
You’ve been ripped off repeatedly, haven’t you? Particularly with Peyton and Byrne.
It makes me insane. All of the pastel stuff we did began to look kitsch because it was copied so much. I heard from someone at Marks & Spencer that they have a mood board in their offices covered in our work. And when Little Chef launched again, they lifted every single thing from what we had done at the British Library.
You must have visited a lot of other restaurants in museums and galleries around the world. What do you think works overseas?
I can imagine it being the 1970s and falling out of there, rat-arsed, at around 7pm, after a really great lunch, thinking “Life is good!”
I think the restaurant in the Guggenheim in Bilbao is good. And I think Danny Meyer is one of the world’s great restaurateurs, but when they closed MoMa in Manhattan I expected a much greater refurbishment.
And, museums and galleries aside, what are your favourite restaurant interiors of all time?
The Four Seasons* in New York is a favourite. There’s that Mussolini-like experience when you walk in. It took me a while to really “get it”. Isola was meant to be my Four Seasons, but it just didn’t have the same magic. I also like the Roux family’s La Colombe d’Or. I can imagine it being the 1970s and falling out of there, rat-arsed, at around 7pm, after a really great lunch, thinking “Life is good!” I like old fashioned restaurants in Rome and Milan, and I like the art deco Rogano in Glasgow. But I think the best restaurant for design in the world is The River Café in London. I often sit there trying to work out why it’s so successful. It’s the spirit of it, with its open kitchen. A room needs magic.
What would you dream project be?
I’d like to do a hotel. Maybe in London, but I have a soft spot for the seaside too. I’d like to do something that people come and see in 100 years time. When you get older, you realise you only have a certain amount of time to achieve what you want. I used to do things for the sake of doing them. It might be a fitting tribute to Oscar Niemeyer to try and revive the project we were going to do with him in Brighton.
Why didn’t that come off?
I got him out of retirement way when he was 87, back in the late 90s. I went to Rio to see him to work on the development for the West Pier. We had £14m of Lottery money, and we worked on it for two years. It was going to be a hotel and restaurant. Then the guy from English Heritage stood up at the meeting and said “Of course we know who Oscar Niemeyer is, but…” And as soon as I heard the word “but”, I knew it wasn’t going to happen. We still have all the drawings.
And what would the restaurant be like if you did it?
Well, instead of going “f––k you, this is a good restaurant”, as I did when we had the Marc Newson restaurants, I’d be more polite. I’m older now. I see things differently. I’d say, politely: “By the way, this is a good restaurant. I’m just telling you.” But you do need to let people know, or they’ll be somewhere else, outside, queuing two hours for a burger. C
*Oliver is talking about the restaurant designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe at 99 East 52nd Street that famously didn’t get the Rothko paintings. Not the hotel up the street.