Restaurant: Anything but the kitchen Zinc

Can the Conran brand stand another diffusion? Tracey MacLeod calls in expert advice to investigate
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Terence Conran has made a fortune out of selling us things we didn't know we needed. When he was a shopkeeper, it was beanbags and chicken bricks, and now that he's London's uber-restaurateur, it's crustacea and colcannon. Zinc Bar and Grill is his new diffusion line, a modestly-priced brasserie to sit alongside super-restaurants like Quaglino's and Mezzo. He plans to roll versions of Zinc out across the country, so to help me gauge whether the brand has legs, I enlisted two of London's authorities on all things stylish - Tyler Brule, the Canadian editorial director of the beyond-cool design magazine, Wallpaper, and Peter York, who bestrides the world of style commentary like a Savile-Row-suited Colossus.

Zinc is tucked away in newly fashionable Heddon Street, a cobble-stoned cul-de-sac off Regent Street which is also home to the exotic Moroccan Restaurant, Momo. Pavement tables and a red awning give the long frontage a Parisian look, but inside it's fairly stark and post-industrial - the building used to be a tailors' warehouse, and Conran's conversion has retained many of the building's features. A row of supporting iron pillars contrasts rather uneasily with the fancy etched-glass screen which divides the huge zinc bar from the restaurant area.

While I waited for Peter and Tyler, I anxiously rehearsed a few aphorisms, like "zinc is the new black" and "it's all very bridge and fennel", hoping I might be able to throw one in casually later on. When Tyler arrived, he immediately began giving his critique at break-neck speed: "It's not as Zincified as I thought it would be. I was at Balthazar in New York last week, and it's so Disneyfied - it's like they've taken La Coupole and put it in Soho. But this is like a modern spin on the brasserie concept. It's very Conran." I complained the dingy lighting made the clientele look grey and ordinary, but Tyler said: "I think it's calculated - they deliberately went for plain. It's not supposed to be fabulous. It's supposed to be like the Gap of restaurants."

The menu, which offers brunch dishes and sandwiches as well as heartier fare, is a familiar mix of French brasserie and British favourites. Descriptions are modishly stark, of the "mushrooms on toast", variety, and prices are reasonable - starters average pounds 4.50 and most of the main courses are under pounds 12. Peter was running late, so we started without him. Tyler with a chicken, bacon and tomato salad, and me with langoustine mayonnaise from the crustacea bar - a very Conran touch. Both were fine, though Tyler found his salad heavy on the dressing, and suspected it may not have been prepared to order.

Two weeks after opening, Zinc's Friday-night crowd was mainly after-work drinkers - the bar was a solid wall of suiting, and the tables held groups of women, smoking and guzzling wine like Anna from This Life. But, gradually, they were infiltrated by clusters of furtive-looking people in Alain Mikli glasses, who could only have been architects. Tyler suspected they were all working on similar projects for rival restaurant groups and were there on reconnaissance missions.

In fact, there was no one in Zinc Tyler couldn't place at a glance, and as each new group arrived, he reeled off a series of finely calibrated definitions. "He's a definite Jigsaw Menswear shopper... She's a fashion wholesaler - see her brand new nappa-leather Gucci bag... He works for a Korean development bank in the City... She's a bra model." A pear-shaped man in a loud checked suit saw Tyler's gimlet eye fall on him and desperately tried to hide behind his wife, but in vain - "He should not be wearing plaid," came the merciless verdict. Trying to join in, I pointed out an over-tanned woman at a nearby table, and crowed, "Doesn't she know brown was last autumn's colour!" Then I realised I was wearing a brown suit. Tyler tactfully said, "Brown's had a much longer lifespan than anyone would have thought," and swiftly changed the subject.

When Peter finally arrived, he was exhausted after a very hard day, and initially found the place a little grim. "All the fun of zinc... he hissed, as he surveyed the revellers at the bar, adding, "It takes me further into something than I care to go, and I can't quite remember what it is." "Is it... the Eighties?" I ventured hesitantly. But he quickly perked up, and soon he and Tyler had launched into a contrapuntal aria of baffling design speak: P: "There's lots of mixed metaphors..." T: "Uhuh, I'm thinking that with these chairs and that scalloped uplit screen, maybe they're trying to do cruise liner..." P: "Yes, it's very French naval architecture." T: "They're trying to do the Normandie dining room." Both: "But second class!" They laughed uproariously, and I joined in, without the slightest idea why.

My main course, rib of beef with horseradish, was delicious - a raggedy tranche of beef served in a red-winey jus with perfect chips. Tyler's sausage and mash was equally satisfactory, though he was disappointed that when he asked for mustard, he wasn't offered a selection - "At least if you went to the Gap, they'd ask if you wanted flat-fronted chinos or pleats." Peter's only comment on his cod, which came with butter beans and pancetta was a delighted, "It's triangular!" We were impressed by the size of the portions, and the speed and authentic brasserie bustle of the service.

My guests were also united in their admiration for what they called Conran's "brand extension". Our Zinc wine was drunk from Zinc glasses, our cutlery was from the soon-to-be launched Conran Collection. We were even offered something called Conran Water. When I went to the bathroom, I was half-expecting the hand dryers to blow out Conran Air.

By 11pm, the room was full, and a noisy, pre-club crowd was still arriving. The lighting had warmed up, and a pianist was playing cocktail-lounge jazz. Tyler had to run - his friend Sven was having a party in a new dining room on Marylebone Lane that no one knows about yet - but before he left, I posed the crucial question: did he think that Zinc would work? "Look around - it's full. It's already working," he replied.

In the end, even Peter had come around to Zinc. Over pudding, he mused: "It's deeply unpressuring. You could find your own level here." But I needed more, perhaps one of his snappy handles to use in the headline. "Are we in Quaglino's Lite?" I enquired hopefully. "No," said Peter firmly, "Because Quaglino's Lite would require a staircase and there's no staircase." "Are we in the cut-price Caprice, then?" I tried again. "Steady on - it's a long way south of the Caprice," he admonished. Desperately, I blurted: "Well, could we be sitting in the chicken brick of the Nineties...?" before lapsing into a shamed silence. Our bill came to 97 Conran Pounds

Zinc Bar and Grill, 21 Heddon Street, London W1 (0171-255 8899). Mon- Wed 11am-11pm. Thur-Sat 11am-1am. Sun 12pm-6pm. Private room available. Wheelchair access. All major credit cards

Avoiding the Conran crowds...

The Quality Chophouse, 94 Farringdon Road, EC1 (0171-837 5093) Serving a comforting array of dishes such as salmon fishcakes with sorrel sauce or grilled calf's liver and chips, many consider this the only chophouse worth visiting. Approximately pounds 20 per person without wine.

The Hole in the Wall, 16 George Street, Bath (01225 425 242) Forsake the media moguls and head for the elegant surroundings of Bath and you won't be disappointed. Serving challenging combinations such as pan-fried red mullet with sauerkraut, The Hole in the Wall rarely fails to please. Main courses from pounds 15.

Sharrow Bay, Ullswater, Cumbria (01768 486 301) In its 49th year under Francis Coulson and Brian Sack, Sharrow Bay continues to live up to expectations. The menu, exploiting local produce and pursuing traditional English style, includes, among other favourites, fish served with souffle suissesse. Dinner pounds 44.25.

The Abingdon, 54 Abingdon Road, London W8 (0171-937 3339) A pleasingly above-average pub conversion on a quiet corner of a leafy street off High Street Kensington. Sit at one of the booth-style seats at the back of the restaurant and you could almost be alone. A Bayonne ham and marinated feta salad starter was a particular hit. Good location for Sunday lunch. pounds 20 per person without wine. Aoife O'Riordain