sir, your table is ready ...

Take a prime site, one chef (cunningly poached), a whizzkid architect - oh yes, and food. Annalisa Barbieri goes behind the scenes to reveal how London's latest eaterie was born
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are nearly 8,000 restaurants in London. Sir Terence Conran, the Mr Big of restaurants, owns seven, with another nine in the pipe-line (although not all of these will be in London). It seems a new eaterie launches every week, and after the ambitiously huge Quaglino's opened in 1993 even size is no longer a problem ("`This is mad,' my friends and advisers told me when I was first thinking of Quaglino's," says Conran "`Why on earth would anyone want to go to a big restaurant?'")

Last week Harvey Nichols's latest venture, the Oxo Tower Restaurant Bar and Brasserie opened with potential seating for 445. And Bank, with 200 covers, opens in the Aldwych next month, behind whose revolving doors we have peeked. All this choice sounds like excellent news for the customer and makes opening a restaurant seem as easy as ordering a creme brulee. But behind the scenes of this frenzy of restaurant launching, and behind the gloss and calm with which the customer will ultimately be presented, there lies stealth, strategy and meticulous preparation.

For example: did you know that cutlery size was minutely discussed? That your waiter's sleeve was designed just so, to be stylish and comfortable but not dangle in your potage? That the ceiling, the lighting and the floor were worked on for months and months so as to be revolutionary / flattering / just damn nice? The Oxo Tower Restaurant and Brasserie has a ceiling that changes from white during the day to dark blue at night and this not only changes the ambience but also enable diners to look out at night and not see their own reflection. And in between all this, key staff, of which there are fewer and fewer, have been baited like big fish.

According to Conran, opening a restaurant needs to cover three basics: "food, service and surroundings." It goes like this: find a site, get an architect, get some ``names'' for your head chef and manager, get them to talk to your architect about what they need, which is explored in minute detail, from how many cabbages they'll have coming in to the acoustics - intimate or buzzy? This can be changed just by including sound-absorbing table-cloths. Architect then goes away and comes back with plans that are approved / changed as necessary. Restaurant is then built - Bank has been worked on for the past 18 months. Harvey Nichols called the men with drawing-boards in last autumn.

The team behind Bank are Tony Allan, Ron Truss and Jeremy Ormerod (who also own Cutty's, which is a company supplying fish to most of the posh restaurants in London including, bizzarely, the competition, Oxo and Quaglino's among many, many others), Christian Delteil the chef director of Bank and Eric Garnier, formerly manager at Quaglino's and now manager director of Bank. There was a long search for the site, which was formerly a Nat West branch. "We'd looked at tons of sites. Our bank told us that a bank at the Aldwych was going to close," explains Truss, "and when we went to see it, it was still a working bank, but we knew it would be perfect.''

The first thing they did was show the site to supa dupa architect Julyan Wickham (responsible for Kensington Place and Harvey Nichols Fifth Floor) who also liked what he saw and set about creating. "They didn't give me a hard-boiled brief," says Wickham, "they left it to me. I started with the kitchen and came up with the idea of something I've always wanted to do, which is to put the kitchen in the dining-room. Like people have at home and making the chefs part of the theatre." The kitchen will be separated by a door-height glass screen "to stop soup spilling on fur coats," chortles Wickham. "Chefs can't pick their nose, they have to be more careful." This will come as good news to Christian Delteil. It was to Christian's specification that the 12-metre Bonnet range was built - one of the largest ever - a choice that saw the Aldwych being closed while this state-of- the-art cooking monster was being hoisted in. Delteil, formerly of the Michelin-starred L'Arlequin in London, has been with the Bank project since the beginning, visiting big New York restaurants to see how they worked and Singapore to cadge some recipes. Then he's been working on the menu and recruiting his 35 staff.

Meanwhile, Eric Garnier was grappling with what we would eat off and with. "Everything for Bank is round. The plates are round with no lip, the glasses are a round balloon shape. The cutlery is called a menu set: the fork, spoon and knife are the same size and with these three pieces I run the whole restaurant," he explains taking various pens off his desk to show me what he means. ``See? Knife and fork that's starter or main course; spoon and fork that's dessert; spoon on its own that's ice-cream or soup; spoon and fork, that's silver service." This also removes all the stupid snobbery and anxiety that surrounds which fork to use when. Phew.

It is the mention of Eric Garnier's name that raises the prickly issue of lack of good staff. "I watched Eric at Quaglino's for a long time," says Allan, "the way he ran it, how smart he looked all the time and how good he was with the customers. He never lost one member of his staff while he was there. Christian was good friends with Eric so he asked him if he'd join us, and Eric jumped at the chance. I don't think Sir Terence was too happy with me but I think that's all ironed out now." Allan sees staffing as "the biggest problem in catering. There just aren't enough good staff to go round." So acute is this problem that Harvey Nichols opened the Oxo to stop staff leakage. "One of the first reasons, and a very important reason for looking for another restaurant," explains Dominic Ford, food and beverage director of Harvey Nichols, "was that we had staff who had been with us for a long time and if we didn't open another restaurant soon, they would move to the competition." Hence Simon Arkless was promoted from sous chef at Fifth Floor to head chef at the Oxo Tower Restaurant and Cait Mitchelhill moved on to bigger challenges from being head chef of the Fifth Floor Cafe to head chef at the Oxo Tower Bar and Brasserie.

And high on the list of Bank's priorities is looking after their staff: Garnier insists that no member of his front of house staff who works a late night should have to work the next day. "It's so easy to ask for a favour and say `we're a bit short of staff, can you come in tomorrow morning?' But then you get a waiter with no appetite to serve." There will also be showers and a pool table for the staff. Garnier even tried to procure the cafe next door so that the waiting staff could eat ``upstairs'', which they're not normally allowed to do.

This cosseting of staff should mean the customer gets superb service, says Garnier (there's nothing worse than a stroppy waiter). And with so many restaurants we should further be spoilt for choice with good food and a great ambience that has carefully been thought out for our pleasure. One final but sweet touch from Bank is a bronze duck sculpture by Richard Cowdy that will sit on the bar and greet you as you enter. "That way," says Wickham, "the first customer will never be alone."

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