The man who ate the Marquee

DESIGN: In the heart of Soho, on the hallowed site where people once crushed in to see the Who, the Stones and Clapton through a sea of sweat, stands Sir Terence Conran and his cast of thousands. What used to be the Marquee club has become a small corner of Conran's latest, greatest gastrodome. It's the biggest restaurant in London and it opens today. Jonathan Glancey reports. Photographs by Dario Mitidieri
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In the heart of Soho, on the hallowed site where people once crushed in to see the Who, the Stones and Clapton through a sea of sweat, stands Sir Terence Conran and his cast of thousands. What used to be the Marquee club has become a small corner of Conran's latest, greatest gastrodome. It's the biggest restaurant in London and it opens today.

Jonathan Glancey reports. Photographs by

Dario Mitidieri

Terence Conran is not a man to do things by halves. He may have called his new restaurant Mezzo but it seats 700 and stands 300 more. It is probably the biggest restaurant in Europe.

Size, of course, is not everything and there are those who think Mezzo is too big for the tightly corseted streets of Soho. Alastair Little, the Frith Street restaurateur (whose establishment seats 32), calls Conran's latest "Megalomania".

Is Conran trying to mop up custom from Soho's traditional patchwork of intimate eateries? "Not at all," says the man, cigar in mouth, champagne flute to hand and seated at one of Mezzo's three bars. "What Mezzo will do, or what we hope it will do, is to bring new trade to Soho. After all, we've managed to get people to come and eat at Quaglino's in St James's when everyone said we wouldn't last a year because we were the wrong restaurant in the wrong location; and we've got people to make an effort to come to Butler's Wharf to eat at our Thames-side restaurants there. We're sure we'll attract new faces to old Soho, creating more trade for everyone."

Certainly it has the look of a joint that will jump late into the night (it's open till 3am on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays and 1am other nights); the kind of place that, despite its computer booking system, you may well have to queue for. Still, if you should have to wait, there is ample diversion in the way of decoration and music.

The staff - all 350 of them - are dressed in colour coded uniforms designed by Jasper Conran in startling blues, green and corals.

The joint grows and grows as you amble further into its colourful enormity. To your left as you go in is a bar - pale blues, zinc, aluminium, all very laid-back and the one bit of the restaurant you can see from the street. The ground-floor restaurant - called Mezzonine - expands out from here, with serried ranks of bare and very solid wooden tables set off by sturdy, yet lightweight aluminium chairs normally used in American prisons. A touch of minimalism, but subtly lit and far from austere.

If you want colour, then look down the swirling, shiny steel, chrome and marble stairway in the main restaurant. This giant space (more cavern than marquee) is alive with vibrant reds and yellows, with a crush of dark, timber tables and mirrors, mirrors everywhere. "You're never alone with a mirror," says Conran. In fact, there is nothing and no one you cannot see from any table in the room. And, despite the sheer number of people who can eat here, Mezzo does not feel at all claustrophobic: the ceiling breaks away allowing diners to see to the kitchens above. These are the kind of spaces you expect in a modern concert hall rather than a restaurant. It is quite an eyeful.

Since the patron burnt his fingers in the City at the time of the Thatcher- Lawson boom, he has gone back to one of the things he knows and does best - fresh food served in imaginatively designed surroundings. Whereas his grander places - Bibendum, Quaglino's and Pont de la Tour - remain the stuff of champagne and caviar dreams, Mezzo is a half-return to his past in other ways. Conran's earliest restaurants, from the Soup Kitchen of the early fifties, were cheap, chic and simple; Mezzo is more haute cuisine than soup kitchen but especially in the Mezzonine restaurant, it is young and fast and reasonably priced. Not for poor students but far from rich chic. This is Soho and it's a world away from South Kensington and St James's. The giant Mezzo restaurant below is much more serious and more pricey.

Artworks abound. There is, among other displays, a gallery of perky black- and-white photographs of Soho nightlife Ninties-style by Helen Drew buzzing around the walls. Drew's work first featured in the lavatories at Quaglino's; promoted from the end to the beginning of the food chain.

And what a lot of food; wok-fulls and rotisserie loads of the stuff, fresh, home-made, spitting, sighing and groaning from two art gallery- like kitchens, set one on top of the other and clearly visible to diners behind double-height glass screens.

Mezzo's 100 chefs, some flown in from Thailand to cater for faddish young tastes, are dressed identically in blue and white stripes and can be seen sweltering in front of some of the most expensive and good-looking equipment in London.

"That big cooker there," says Conran pointing at what looks like a solid ingot of stainless steel, gas jets flaming from its bulletproof rings, "was made specially for us in France; I saw one like it at La Coupole and thought what's good enough for Montparnasse is good enough for Soho."

What's good enough for Mezzo is a battery of industrial catering equipment, an ocean liner like assembly of store rooms and larders, preparation counters and refrigerators. And it is all, unashamedly, on show.

Outside, on the street, you can peep in to Mezzo's bakery ("the only one in Soho," says Conran proudly) where bread and cakes are made for the restaurant and its adjoining cafe.

"We want to be a part of Soho in every way," he says. "So, if you walk along Wardour Street, you'll see that we've divided the front into a number of distinct shops - cafe, bakery, restaurant - so it doesn't seem nearly as big as it is."

Mezzo, all pounds 5million and 700 covers of it, is the sort of place that, on paper, looks like a wok too far, but, seen in its most favourable lights, sounds much the right note - cool, blue, easy and long into the night. The sound of Soho, in fact

Mezzo

100 Wardour Street

London W1

0171-314 4000

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