Will the woolly hats go hungry?

The department store cafe is back. But it's hip young urbanites they are catering for, says Monique Roffey
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The Independent Online
Serrano-wrapped monkfish with braised lettuce and rosemary, followed by grilled strawberry club sandwich with red berry coulis. Yup, that's my lunch sorted. I put the menu down and take in the room: crisp white linen table cloths, white walls, deep blue stained-glass windows, strong clashing reds - unmistakably Terence Conran. But no, this isn't Quaglino's. It's Selfridges. Welcome to the department store designer cafe.

Following in the footsteps of the new fashion cafes - at DKNY, Nicole Farhi, Armani, even Jones - Selfridges and BhS have just invested in stylish new eating areas aimed at the young urban sophisticate. "From the Fifties through to the Seventies, department store cafes were very different," says Ian Morris, head of food services for BhS. "You'd have the old ladies with their woolly caps sitting over a cup of tea for three hours and the food was your standard stodgy hot meal - fish, chips and peas. In the Eighties, they were slightly modified - spaces were divided and granite replaced stainless steel counters - but there was no radical change."

Now BhS has introduced sleek new coffee houses to seven of its stores, with 10 more in development. Decked out in pale blues, greens and natural woods, they are spacious, airy and non-smoking, and serve freshly ground coffee, exotic "salads of the world" and quality delicatessen food. "They're aimed at our target merchandise customer," says Mr Morris. "Someone female, 25 to 45, fashionable, lively, confident, fun." Selfridges has the same aims. "We wanted to attract business people for lunch," says catering manager Helen Flanders, "and that's happening."

Like the extremely popular fifth-floor restaurant/cafe/food hall complex at Harvey Nichols, the idea is to establish a smart restaurant in its own right. "We're trying to encourage a bigger mix of people eating here, not just ladies who lunch," says Dominic Ford, the store's food and beverage director.

Opened two years ago, the Harvey Nichols complex was the forerunner of the current trend. The restaurant, all white linen and lilies for secluded, sophisticated dining, contrasts starkly with the open-plan cafe, with its brightly coloured chairs. "Before, we used to have a restaurant called Harvey's At The Top, which was a typical department store restaurant," says Mr Ford. "It was pretty nasty, with green banquettes." Given a brief to restyle the entire floor, Ford took inspiration from the Americans and Japanese. "In Tokyo food retailing is very open and surrounded by lots of activity," he says. "American delis are the same. We wanted a more contemporary feel, somewhere light and fun."

These new restaurants are aimed at the young, hip, affluent city-dweller, a punter department stores want in their changing rooms, too. But what about the old guard: the blue-rinsed grandes dames of tea? All the revamped stores claim they want their regular customers:"We're surprised, but many of our old customers actually like our new cafe," says Mr Ford. DKNY reportsthree types of customer: the businessmen who come in to read the freshly flown-inWall Street Journal with their morning muffins and espressos, young women at lunch time, and older ladies for tea.

Even if the trend is changing at some of the traditional lunchtime grazing grounds, many stores are standing their ground. "Ladies who lunch are our core customers," says a spokesman for Massarella, the company that runs the restaurant at Barkers of Kensington. "Barkers is a haven of tradition. It's somewhere your mother would feel comfortable." The food - roast of the day, fish and chips - does well, too.

Likewise, Fortnum & Mason and Peter Jones, bastions of the British department store lunch, have no plans to change. "We have long-standing regular customers who have been coming here for 25 years," says Nabil Maatouk, restaurant manager for the St James restaurant at Fortnum. "They come here for the calm, gentle atmosphere and the traditional British food. We have a reputation to live up to and we have no intention of changing things."

But no matter how slick and trendy the new fashion cafes, one major point seems to have been overlooked. A store is a store and a restaurant is a restaurant. This hip young urbanite, for one, doesn't go shopping for knickers at her favourite cafe, and doesn't want a cup of coffee where and when she buys knickers.