Oliver Peyton is Cool Britannia's caterer of choice. He made a fortune with restaurants like Coast and the Atlantic Bar & Grill. But now he's facing his biggest challenge to date
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The Independent Culture
IF A WEEK is a long time in politics, four years is a lifetime in Soho. Since opening at the tail end of the last recession, the Atlantic Bar & Grill has seen off a Tory government, a colony in Asia, several music trends and an England football manager, yet still it retains a certain freshness. Scarlet walls and sea-green carpets in the "Art Deco" foyer conjure up a Chinese palace via a Harlem nightclub, the brass fittings gleam, and fresh pink tulips adorn a bookstore which stocks, alongside several indistinguishable men's magazines, Damien Hirst's recent coffee- table tome.

Also on sale are gift boxes of house wine, ballpoint pens and T-shirts, all bearing the legend "Atlantic London" in the same cobalt hue as the menus. Perhaps more curious are the cigarettes on display. Really, besides a few continental poseurs, does anyone smoke Gitanes Blondes or Davidoff Magnum?

Yet this seamless mix of the chic and kitsch is precisely the point, and says much about how Britain perceives itself in 1998. Because standing here in the Atlantic, even at 10 o'clock on a cement-grey Monday morning, a certain metronomic pulse is discernible, and you can easily feel yourself carried away.

Yes, as Jamiroquai's pseudo-Californian funk fills the room, you can almost taste the champagne's icy rasp on the back of the throat, almost sense the hot, sweaty throb of Saturday night's load, the surge of inebriated bonhomie, that vapour of belonging that oozes from the packed weekend crowd.

Even though just around the corner the pavement people are stirring in their filthy blankets and cardboard boxes, it is easy to believe that here, half a block from Eros, is the culture-bunker of New Labour's Cool Britannia. This is the place Newsweek and Time came looking for, the nerve centre of a mythical mediacratic megavillage where - despite illusions of privilege such as limousines, bouncers, brass doors, red carpets and velvet ropes - old class barriers are trampled underfoot nightly in the regulated stampede between Dick's Bar and the toilet cubicles.

The Atlantic is the hub of a city where MDs and DJs and PRs and TV researchers really can drink at the same bar. Just round the corner are Planet Hollywood and Rock Circus and Segaworld and a thousand tourist traps, and yes, they too have branded merchandise, but this place, you feel, is where things happen.

There is an almost palpable sense of "can-do" as the staff buzz around racking glasses and laying tables in this cavernous bar-restaurant, with its purple walls, contemporary art and marble-clad columns. Waiting for Oliver Peyton, 36-year-old patron and founder of the Atlantic, you get the feeling that his staff don't actively resent working for him. In fact, they might even enjoy it.

And why not? Not only is their boss keen on staff-training, promotion from within, company loyalty and all that, but he's also the very model of bootstrapping gumption, a working-class Irish immigrant who in just over 10 years has gone from running a Brighton nightclub called The Can to being one of Britain's most successful independent restaurateurs. He has four thriving restaurants, three more opening this year, a planned pounds 28m hotel complex on Brighton's landmark West Pier, and is due to marry an heiress this summer (26-year-old Charlie Polizzi, grand-daughter of Lord Forte). In short, a man on the up.

Suddenly, there he is - tall, tousle-headed, gangly and grinning, impeccably attired in suit (no tie) and brogues, waving me into the womb-like plush of Dick's Bar, where people drink things like the Atlantic Champagne Cocktail - "a sugar lump soaked in orange bitters, with a dash of Grand Marnier and Cointreau, topped with Louis Roederer Brut Premier" - a snip at pounds 7.50.

As he speaks, Oliver Peyton's large, pale hands flap around a lot. He fiddles with the silver band on his right ring finger, he puts his feet up on the red sofa, and he talks in sentences that fizzle out, only to flash back into life as he remembers something ... exciting!

He was born and raised in Swinford, County Mayo, the eldest son of a civil engineer and a nurse. After boarding school ("It's a very different system in Ireland, not so class-driven") it was either economics at Trinity, or textiles at Leicester with a scholarship from the Confederation of Irish Industry worth pounds 120 a week. "This was in 1979, and a pint of beer was 34p at the time. So I was particularly happy at that."

After two years at Leicester, he ran The Can for a while in Brighton, then moved to London, where some friends invited him to see Eighth Wonder, a band with a vocalist by the name of Patsy Kensit. The venue was the Central YMCA basement just off Tottenham Court Road, a vast concrete bunker. Peyton felt it would make a great club; his pals disagreed. The club, Raw, became a success because Peyton had the right combination of decor, DJs, drinks and door policy. The location, smack in the middle of the West End but off the tired Soho track, didn't hurt either. And he gave away imaginative promotional items, little games and trinkets that got people talking - as did the Japanese beers on sale at the bar, then still a rarity. This was the point at which British men were just discovering the supposedly stylish qualities of "premium" lagers.

Peyton expanded his club promotions and set up a drinks distribution company with his younger sister, Siobhan. He was already selling Kirin lager in Raw when he got a tip about another Japanese beer, Sapporo. Within weeks he had the contract. It was the same story with Absolut vodka - he called on a Friday morning, pitched on a Monday evening, and signed the contract in Stockholm the following Friday morning, beating 45 companies who had already tendered. "We got it because we understood the brand and how to sell it. Simple as that. No magic formula."

Before long, "fed up driving up and down motorways trying to flog booze", Peyton wanted to open a restaurant, but decided to settle for a bar. The search for premises led to another basement, this time under the Regent Palace Hotel. While exploring the adjacent building he discovered a passage leading to a forgotten Seventies disco called The Cactus Club. "It was all painted black and had a really low ceiling. I could hardly see it. But as we were leaving I banged into one of those marble columns." Realising there was a false ceiling, Peyton got a torch, tore off a ceiling tile and found the 1890s ballroom that is now the Atlantic Bar & Grill. Like some nightlife archaeologist, he had stumbled right into the room in which we are now sitting. The premises still had their original unrestricted 3am drinks licence. "Unbelievable," he admits.

The Atlantic opened in April 1994, with backing "from some friends in the City". It seems strange now, but many questioned its viability at the time. It seemed too big, too flash, too pricey to fill every night (with the right people). Groucho geeks simply couldn't understand why it didn't have an exclusive membership policy - after all, simply anybody could come in off the street. More egalitarian types were equally nonplussed: with Britain emerging from recession many thought conspicuous consumption was passe. I wrote the first preview in the Independent, but only after convincing my editor it wouldn't close within a week of opening.

In fact, Peyton had accurately anticipated the move by his peers from nightclubs to restaurants - attracting what became known as the Dunravin' crowd, those one-time style-mag people who were tired of being shooed off dance-floors. "We put 90 per cent of our money into it," he says, "so it was a big risk. We opened it for pounds 300,000, and then had to spend another pounds 200,000. That shows how the market has changed. Now our average site costs anything from pounds 1.5 million to pounds 2.5 million to open."

In 1995, he unveiled Coast, a slice of lime-coloured LA lah-di-dah gone Mayfair by way of Tuscany - where the clientele likes to ski, according to manager Vincent. Here, the trust-fund and expense-account crowd eats salmon and stuffed baby squid at pounds 16 a pop, and guzzles expensive wines from huge glass goblets - Peyton prides himself on substantial servings of food and drink. Over the last three years, Coast has won various magazine and newspaper awards - Best Young Chef, Best Wine List, Restaurant of the Year. However, Will Self disliked it, damning it as "an eating terminal for the 21st century".

Coast was followed by Mash and Air, a 12,000sq ft bar-restaurant complex in Manchester. Mash, the ground-floor budget joint, has its own micro- brewery (hence the name), while the two top floors are occupied by Air, an upmarket restaurant with views across the city. During construction, I tell him, rumours circulated in London about Mancunian gangsters, their threats and demands.

"Yeah, we had some trouble in Manchester when we started. The problem is there are a number of people who want to control the drugs business there. Once they saw we were not a nightclub, not a place where you'd hang out and pop a couple of pills, the pressure was off." The introduction of CCTV cameras may have helped, too.

Close-knit family ties have been a major factor in Peyton's irresistible rise. All three of his younger sisters have worked with him since Raw. Siobhan, the eldest, is now MD of all his companies, controlling finance, organisation and development of a business with 380 employees. Do they argue? "Yes, of course," she says, "massively, massively. We're both quite arrogant, both think we're right all the time. But I'll go away and take on board what he's said, and vice versa. That's the great thing about family; we don't have to worry about the other walking out."

Sometime this spring, Peyton's new Italian restaurant, Isola, will open in Knightsbridge, dwarfing Mr Chow's next door. But you sense he may already be a little bored with it, digging deep for the small change of enthusiasm. His real froth is for the new baby, an enormous second branch of Mash, due to open just off Oxford Street next month. This is where he wants to create "a real British cuisine, which is funky and hard and different, an amalgam of the ethnic influences of the country, the way that American food is".

As we tour the building site in hard hats, his hands flapping manically, he gives me the full spec: 220 covers, pale oak floors, lots more modern art, a delicatessen, a micro-brewery, wood-burning ovens. Upstairs, three floors of airy offices, with conference rooms, pool table and a room dedicated to "health". A gym, then? "There's been a large push towards yoga lately," he says.

And when that's finished, there is the beautiful but dilapidated West Pier in Brighton, where he plans to develop a hotel complex with restaurants, shops, bars and a branch of the Serpentine Gallery. A pipe dream? pounds 14m of Lottery money is already earmarked for structure and decking; if Peyton can match it, the deal is on. It's hard to see him failing.

"Are you a millionaire?" I ask.

"Yeah, I suppose I am. If I stopped now I could live quite comfortably."

"But you won't."

"No, because I'm still quite young, I've got ideas, things I want to do ... I want to make restaurants like nobody else's. Not just for the sake of it, but I think I can contribute something to ... " there is another pause and he lowers his voice before resuming with a zeal bordering on the evangelical.

"Restaurants," he hisses, "are part of the feelgood factor of the country, they're now totally part of the culture. And I love that. And I really think the boom in restaurants has made people feel good about themselves, and if we can continue to do that

Maybe he was too embarrassed to suggest that we might one day have a more laid-back, less self-conscious and class-ridden society - like the one you feel you might have entered when you step into one of his establishments, which regardless of clientele or food are always distinctly egalitarian. Provided, of course, you can pay pounds 6 for a Bloody Mary. !