words Justin McGuirk
London’s most exclusive eatery is a head-on collision between the sublime and the blandly tasteful.
Long after your knife and fork have been coupled, your napkin put aside and the last petit four declined, there’s only one thing that will stay with you: the view. Because eating in London’s most exclusive restaurant is a bit like eating in the window seat of an aeroplane; the food is just starch and amino acids compared to the thrill of having a city laid out like a map below you.
The restaurant on the 39th floor of 30 St Mary Axe, along with the bar on the 40th, and top, floor, are two of the most dramatic spaces in the capital. Vertigo, the bar that tops the Natwest Tower about 200m to the west, can hold nothing to it. Vertigo is cloistered and intimate, essentially a circular corridor with strips of window. The top of the Gherkin, by contrast, is almost frighteningly exposed to the 360° city. With a turn of the heel you can pan from the river to the Roman roads radiating northwards from the City.
Looking out from this glass capsule, you know that thousands of people are looking up at you and that hardly any of them will ever get to return that line of sight. Which is sad. Anyone can have a drink atop the Natwest Tower, whereas the Gherkin’s restaurant and bar are for the sole use of the Swiss Re insurance firm’s staff and clients.
Luckily, I was given what will probably be my only opportunity to see it when the food service consultancy that designed and manages the restaurant held a reception … I appreciate this is getting less and less glamorous. Let’s just say I got a tour of the kitchens on the 37th and 38th floors, and I can reveal that, through the gaps in the appliances, the city is as present for chefs and scullions as it is for guests.
There were downsized dishes from the menu circling: some very al dente risotto (well, I couldn’t dent it), along with salmon sashimi and sausages and mash. I tasted all of them perched on the ledge overhanging the restaurant. It felt more comfortable there than leaning against the railing inside the windows – doing that made me hold my glass with two hands, as though I might drop it the full 180m. The other thing that is slightly unsettling, perhaps only subconsciously, is the ineluctable slant of the window struts. In our orthogonal world, we’re just not used to being held up by diagonals.
The evening and the interior were as tasteful as each other. Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – the safest, most overplayed of jazz albums – was matched by the safely tasteful black granite floor tiles. But why are they rectangular? It seems a stock choice of material for a circular room edged with fierce diagonals. It’s as though they were picked from the “top end” section of the catalogue by someone who knew they had to say “quality” but didn’t know where they were for.
The bar furniture, on the other hand, made very obvious concessions to the architecture. Arne Jacobsen’s Swan chairs sat voluptuously around round tables. These, incidentally, are the same chairs that are in Vertigo, only in serious grey suede rather than scuffed cobalt blue. Since when did Jacobsen have the monopoly on lounging at altitude?
The lighting, like the floor tiles, also felt under-designed. The lens that caps the structure is mounted with spotlights casting beams that you felt the need to step out of in case you were teleported.
There is something of the Eighties about this place. I can see Gordon Gecko standing at the windows with thumbs in his braces. But there’s also an art deco feel, particularly in the black granite staircase spiralling from the restaurant up to the bar, which was made for Fred Astaire to come gliding down.
It seems churlish to nitpick, but this remarkable space is not the interior it might have been. Little details recall a corporate bottom line. I suppose the question is whether you try, futilely, to live up to what is on the other side of those windows, or just give in to it.