serena mackesy talks to oliver peyton
OLIVER PEYTON is a nice guy, but sitting still is not his forte. He talks not just with his mouth, but his entire body: hands waving and stabbing to emphasise; head swivelling; one of those smiles that explodes from nowhere - bang! curly corners to his lips, pleasantly imperfect teeth - and pops back in at equal speed. When he smiles, which he does often, he turns his face to one side and gazes off into the distance, as though sharing an ironic aside with his imaginary friend. He's infectious, enthusiastic, good for a laugh: restful he ain't.

Our hottest restaurateur - proprietor of the Atlantic Bar and Grill and Coast in London, Mash and Air in Manchester, and its sister restaurant Mash, an onion bread roll's throw from Oxford Circus - has a peripatetic mind to match his lifestyle. He's been down in Brighton this morning, checking on his mother, who is poorly after a dodgy hip replacement. Then it's this interview, an afternoon meeting, then a plane flight down to Cornwall where his girlfriend Charlie's mother, Olga Polizzi, the Forte heiress, is opening a hotel and requires his input.

Peyton talks in bursts, everything peppered with "likes", "you knows" and "sort ofs" as he allows his mind to catch up with what he's saying. A typical Peyton statement will run like this: "People say I'm hyperactive, and I suppose maybe, well, yes and no, I mean I seem to end up working a minimum 12-hour day, and I rush around a lot, but I can also, you know, switch off and read a book. My ideal would be to do six months here and six in Italy. I'm really into biographies at the moment. I could happily go to Italy and sit around, go to lunch, take a siesta, have a drink..." The man can even make a hectic schedule from doing nothing .

We're sharing a speedy lunch at Mash, a former car showroom full of pools of light and shade, Seventies-style nubuck leather benches and pouffes, Day-Glo orange and chrome kegs of home-brew for account directors to drink at home: a quick hour, mobile phone on table, half a pizza and half a dozen cigarettes - he's a two-packs-a-day man - crammed in around a stream of words. "There are a lot of people in the restaurant business who've no heart and soul for it. I can tell within 20 seconds of going into a restaurant whether it's good or not. I don't even need to see the menu. They just give out their karma."

Peyton's places certainly give out karma. The opening of the Atlantic five years ago, a fabulously plush concatenation of scarlet and blue, brass and velvet, sofas and cocktails, was something of a milestone in the capital's fabled nightlife. The West End at last had a venue with swank but little side, which attracted a remarkable mix of London's high- rollers, who were tiring, on the youth spectrum, of the repetitive thud of nightclubs, and at the older end of the old-school pomposity of the Garrick. When Our Tony entered the annals of modern cliche with his Cool Britannia soundbite, we could all tell that his Islington outlook was swinging as much towards the Atlantic and its ilk as the marvellous artistic talents who fill the country.

Peyton, 36, had been influencing the culture from the grass roots for years before his overnight celebrity as proprietor of London's most happening nightspot. From Swinford, Co Mayo, he came to Britain in 1979 to study textiles at Leicester on a Confederation of Irish Industry scholarship. "If you're Irish you can't go to university outside the country without paying, so it came in handy. It was a lot of money: I was getting pounds 120 a week in 1979: that's real money. My parents had a textile business for about 20 years - they had lots of different businesses - so there was a logic to it: they thought I was going to go into it. But you've got to be really into the subject, you know. It's very science-based, and I just got bored."

After two years, he moved to Brighton, where he turned nightclub proprietor, running The Can, before starting up Raw, a venue in the basement of Tottenham Court Road YMCA in London. The success of the "novelty" drinks - Japanese lagers - sold at Raw led him into drinks distribution, first of all winning the contract to distribute Sapporo, and then driving the Swedish vodka Absolut into the forefront of the youth market through a canny combination of fashionable tie-ins and advertising - he was one of the first distributors to really make use of the style-leading qualities of the pink press.

But once a venue geezer, always a venue geezer. And when a clubman ages, something has to change. "I've tried to grow up with my generation. In a way, I'm trying to appeal to the same sort of people who used to come to my clubs. There came a point in the Eighties when you couldn't go to a sweaty club without taking E anymore, and if you wanted a drink it was virtually impossible after 11pm. It was stupid."

So he set out to change the scene. Research chucked up an interesting fact: that the basement of the Regent Palace Hotel, once a ballroom, then a deeply tacky nightclub, had never had its 3am licence rescinded in the puritanism of wartime Britain. "It was one of the reasons I chose the site, that I knew that the late licence was there. And then we found that, when you removed the false ceilings, that most of the ballroom was pretty much intact; it was pretty much a restoration job. But there was an awful lot of resentment in the business about us operating a 3am licence. The police don't really want us serving booze at 3am. It's only one of two places in the West End where you can get a drink at that time without being a member."

Oddly enough, the punters lapped it up and Peyton has become the messiah of nightlife as therapy. "I have a deep belief that restaurants are really important to the underlying psyche of a country. I mean, we started clubs because we wanted to have a good time, but back then, if you wanted to go to a restaurant you had to go to some stuffy old French place where you had to spend pounds 200 on a bottle of wine.

"But I think if people see each other out having a good time it has a positive effect on the country as a whole." And, though not all bottles of wine cost pounds 200 at the Atlantic, Coast and Mash, he has managed to find a large number of people willing to lay out pounds 6 for a gin and tonic.

He takes another bite of pizza, gives up on eating and talking at the same time, pushes it to one side. This is obviously how someone who claims to be "an obsessive foodie, I really am", stays skinny. "We have a master plan about how we're going to develop the restaurants," he says. "Next year we're going to go for a more haute cuisiney type of thing. At the moment, I'd see us as more proletarian, because that's what I'm interested in." Bang, the smile comes out again. "I'll get my arse kicked for that. But, at the moment in our restaurants, you can eat for under a tenner or you can choose to spend a hundred quid if you like, and I like that idea."

Me, I'm not entirely convinced that the average clientele of the Peyton restaurants mind so much about food as being in the right place. After all, most of what goes on in Cool Britannia could be summed up in one word: branding. And the trouble with branded goods, as Nike is discovering to its cost at the moment, is that they tire; people move on. While Mash is the current fave rave of every air-kissing media darling in the city, the Atlantic has been collecting the sneers of those who see themselves on the cutting-edge for its increasingly Essex clientele.

Delightfully, he doesn't respond to this charge with the usual celebrity whinge about the public and pedestals. "Actually," he says, "we have 1,800 people through the door every day, and we're as busy there as we ever were. I know people like to go `famous for 15 minutes blah blah blah', but I don't care. All I care about is that people use the thing I've created. I, personally, don't want to go to a place where I see the same faces every day. And over one-third of our business is tourists. Always has been."

I envisage a nightmarish future: a new venue every year, desperately trying to keep ahead of the style leaders' increasingly short attention span. Oddly enough, this seems to be the very thing on which he thrives. Guess that's why he's one of them and I stay at home with my computer. "I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning unless I could do something interesting," he says. "I don't want to be doing Microsoft Restaurant Design, where you get a package and do it by numbers. I want to do something more interesting than that. I've a very, very low boredom threshold. Once a thing's conceived, I'm history.

"There's a whole new generation of people coming up who are very creative and are now starting to get the money together to go into business. I'm quite proud to be part of this. A lot of the received wisdoms and psychoses are beginning to go. Cool Britannia is a bit unfortunate, but there is this groundswell of people moving on to new things."

"New things" coming up in his world in the next few months include a members' club overlooking the Bank of England. "The perception of clubs is stuffy, old-fashioned. The idea is that it's not just going to be bankers who go. The committee will have lawyers, City and media-type people, so it won't just be the whole of the Goldman Sachs trading floor."

Also under construction is his new "haute cuisine Italian" joint in Knightsbridge, Isola, which will occupy an 88ft frontage that makes the restaurant next door, the venerable Mr Chow, look like a matchbox, plus the projected refurbishment of the ruinous West Pier in Brighton with the help of pounds 14m in lottery money. He's been talking to Oscar Niemeyer, architect of Brasilia, and produces a picture of a building planned for the seafront. It looks like the spaceship on top of the very long ladder in Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan.

And in cases of lulls, there's always table-hopping. Part of Peyton's success is his famous sociability: going up and introducing himself to clientele regardless of celebrity or nonentity. "I do it as much because I enjoy it as because it's good for business. I'm the sort of person who just likes meeting as many different kinds of people as I can. And you get such a mixture of people in our restaurants, from the very, very famous and rich right down to - not that I'm saying they're the bottom of the heap - students. People's grandmothers. It's everybody." As long, I say, as they've got some money. Bang: the imaginary friend gets the joke, too. "Well, yeah."