In his review of Sessions Arts Club, David Ellis from The Evening Standard described it as a “fairytale of faded Regency-era glamour” decked out with “worn green paint and crumbling pink plaster, ceilings as tall as giants” and “great arched windows breathing light”. He wasn’t wrong. Walking into the restaurant and ascending up its rickety lift is a bit like booking yourself into an edgier version of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The food, however, is a lot less Wes Anderson: honest portions of pork belly, fennel, and orange go tit for tat with Provençal assemblages of petit aioli with egg, anchovy, lettuce and radishes. There’s nothing mildly twee about the cooking here.
The space itself was zhuzhed up and conceived by Jonny Gent, Jon Spiteri, architect Russell Potter (of SODA Studio), and Ted and Oliver Grebelius of Sätila Studios. That might sound like it’d be in danger of becoming a “too many cooks” situation but the interior has obviously benefitted from having so many seasoned pros involved.
Dedication to experience and ambience can be found everywhere from high-end, £5-for-a-single-croquette restaurants like Sessions to more casually-priced affairs as well. The Big Mamma group are known for their OTT interiors; brash and bold dining rooms have become a calling card for their restaurants that span across the globe from Madrid and Paris to Covent Garden. All you need to do is walk by Circolo Popolare in Fitzrovia and see the 20,000 bottles of alcohol lining the walls to understand how crucial an interior is to a restaurant’s success. And with TikTok and more image-first social media platforms becoming so influential, I can’t help but question whether people are starting to consider the interior and vibe of a restaurant to be more important than the food? Speaking from personal experience, I’ve had more people ask me how I can help them get a table at Circolo Popolare more than any other restaurant.
The obsession with what a restaurant looks like on the inside is hardly new, though, and it’s not like TikTok-ers are the only ones judging them on that metric. Sketch is a three Michelin-starred restaurant located just a quick saunter from Oxford Circus. You’d expect the food to be one of the major selling points at a restaurant which serves what Michelin deems to be “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey" yet take a look at Sketch’s Instagram tags and you’ll be lucky to find a single snap of the food they serve. Honestly.
Most of the photos are, in fact, of the restaurant’s bathroom. I’d be lying if I said that loo didn’t look really, really cool but I can’t help but feel that it’s also an easy marker of style over substance. Because if visiting the bog is the most memorable thing about someone’s dining experience, surely you’re doing something wrong as a restaurateur? Or, then again, maybe you’re doing the opposite. While I’m not personally a fan, getting a booking at Sketch is still relatively difficult and the restaurant is one of only seven restaurants in the UK to hold three stars. Sometimes people are happier with getting style in lieu of substance. And that’s okay. I just don’t get why you would go to a restaurant that completely forgets about the substance part when there are so many places out there that capably combine the two. Soho’s Sri Lankan stunner Paradise is one such restaurant.
Having a meal in Paradise feels a bit like you’re dining in the Barbican. The cool, concrete space, designed by Dan Preston Studio, was even longlisted in the ‘restaurant interior’ category of the Dezeen Awards 2020. Part of the reason why Paradise’s brutalist interior works is because it offers a compelling contrast from the vibrant flavour and aesthetic of dishes like the roasted yellow cod curry and charred courgette and cucumber kiri-hodi curry. Those colourful, kaleidoscopic creations sit on top of bespoke Sofia Ceramics crockery to underline the divide between the restaurant’s sunny South Asian food and its rather less-sunny physical location in central London.