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The New British Empire

With London conquered, Terence Conran takes on Paris and New York

John Mariani
Posted: October 5, 2000

 
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The New British Empire

With London conquered, Terence Conran takes on Paris and New York

By John Mariani


"Chance favors the prepared mind," said Louis Pasteur, in a statement that seems to explain the knack Terence Conran has always had for being in the right place at the right time. This time, the right places are Paris, New York and London, the locations of his three large, lavish new restaurants that, like his others, bear his unmistakable imprimatur. At 69, Conran is busier and more successful than ever.

How does he do it? "I've always been guided by the principle that people don't necessarily know what they want until it's offered to them," he says. Following that hunch, he has built an international empire of cutting-edge design stores -- the first opened in 1964 -- followed by one fashion statement of a restaurant after another. Some of the best are created out of derelict, outsized spaces few others have the temerity or means to take on. Until last year, all his restaurants -- Bibendum, Quaglino's, Bluebird and others -- were in London, where they have been widely imitated. The largest, Mezzo, seats 700.

The inspiration for many of these has been Paris, home of grand brasseries like La Coupole and Bofinger, which he calls "democratic eating places." Now, Conran has Alcazar, a real Parisian brasserie in the heart of Paris itself, at the site of a once-illustrious cabaret of the same name. Except for its size (it seats almost 350) and reasonable prices, it resembles no other brasserie in town. Alcazar is vintage Conran: clean and modern with touches of vibrant color -- deep reds and purple -- throughout. Photography and bright modern art grace the walls, and sunshine streams through a magnificent glass ceiling. There's more glass fronting the kitchen. This contrasts sharply with the yellowed walls, red-brown banquettes and brass railings that locals are used to seeing in brasseries. Evening jazz piano enhances the relaxed, hip tone of the place.

If opening such a newfangled brasserie in the home of the brasserie shows gumption, Conran's New York undertaking -- the installation of Guastavino's in the gargantuan space beneath the approach to the Queensboro Bridge -- demonstrates sheer chutzpah.

This was a project whose size and great tangle of red tape had stymied several of New York's savviest restaurateurs for more than a decade. The vaulted bays were once a vast municipal food market -- 66,000 square feet of 40-foot pillars and vaulted archways covered in distinctive ivory tiling designed by Catalonian artisan Rafael Guastavino y Esposito in 1914 (he also gets credit for the beautiful ceiling tiles at Ellis Island and the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Terminal).

Abandoned in the 1930s, the space lay in shambles. For Conran, this prospect was too exciting to pass up. Together with partner Joel Kissin, he spent nearly five years planning, designing and building the restaurant (rumored to have cost upwards of $24 million), which shares the location with an upscale supermarket. There's a Terence Conran Shop in the basement below both.

Guastavino's is actually two establishments in one -- a moderately priced 320-seat brasserie and bar downstairs and the more intimate, high-end Club Guastavino on the mezzanine above. The renovation marries turn-of-the-century municipal grandeur to Conran glamour. The mezzanine is entirely open, with a grand view of the larger dining room below. By day, both restaurants are saturated in the light that shimmers through the 4,000-square-foot wall of windows that fronts 59th Street. The look is minimal, and the colors are muted and earthy throughout to complement the rough-hewn stone walls. There's a kitchen at each level, both visible through glass walls.

Though clearly determined to break new ground overseas, Conran is not done expanding in his hometown. His newest London venture, Aurora, is set under a vast, backlighted, Victorian stained-glass dome in the refurbished 1884 Great Eastern Hotel.

Situated at the edge of the city's financial district, the hotel, like the Alcazar cabaret and the Queensboro Bridge market, had been neglected for many years. It was covered with layers of paint and grime, and the dome had been boarded up since the days of the Blitz. Now there are five restaurants here, courtesy of Conran Holdings and Wyndham International, all of them casual except for Aurora. Unlike Alcazar and Guastavino's, it's no brasserie. It's smaller (200 seats) and pricier (entres start at $26). But, once again, Paris is the muse: The food is mostly French, and the menu is studded with French culinary terms -- merlan, cassoulet, en cocotte and more.

Aurora is stunning, both in the formality of its vaulting Victorian majesty and in the sleek, Conran-esque adaptation of the venerable space. This is one of the most romantic dining rooms in London. Light filtered through the dome dapples the dining room with color, and the acoustics are perfect -- you can easily hear your fellow diners over the pleasant patter of other people enjoying themselves throughout the room.

What neglected landmark site is next? Actually, there's another one already, in Stockholm, which I have yet to visit. From what I can tell, Berns, in the 1896 hotel of the same name, is every bit as spectacular as Alcazar, Guastavino's and Aurora. The decor and the menu, which is overseen by chef Neil Ponsonby, have the same urbane, trademark Conran style -- with a Swedish touch, of course.

Make no mistake about it: That Conran still has the fire to produce such ambitious, leading-edge restaurants in so many places shows that he's not yet finished giving people from around the world what they want before they know they want it.


For the complete article, please see the Oct. 15, 2000 issue of Wine Spectator magazine, page 112.

Featured Links

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Terence Conran's New Restaurants
Name/Address Phone Fax Open Cost Credit Cards
ALCAZAR
62 Rue Mazarine
Paris
(011)
33-
015310-
1999
n/a Lunch, daily; Dinner, daily; Brunch, Sunday Entrées $15-$22 V, MC, AMEX, DC, DISC
AURORA
Great Eastern Hotel, Liverpool Street, London
(011)
44-
020-
7618-
7000
(011)
44-
020-
7618-
7001
Breakfast, Monday to Friday; Dinner, Monday to Saturday Entrées, $26-$40 V, MC, AMEX, DC, DISC
CLUB GUASTAVINO
409 E. 59th Street
New York
(212)
980-
2455
n/a Lunch, Tuesday to Sunday; Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday Lunch, prix fixe $35; Dinner, prix fixe $65 V, MC, AMEX, DC, DISC
GUASTAVINO'S
409 E. 59th St.
New York
(212)
980-
2455
n/a Lunch, Monday to Friday; Dinner Sunday to Wednesday; Brunch, Saturday and Sunday Entrées, $14-$32 V, MC, AMEX, DC, DISC


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