Jill Stein is the interior designer behind each of the 23 distinctive outlets within the Stein portfolio. She explains where her inspiration from when opening a new restaurant
There’s no question that having the Rick Stein name above the door is a key driver when it comes to a restaurant’s success, but Jill Stein has also had a considerable and consistent influence on the business since 1975, when the flagship Seafood Restaurant opened its doors on the Padstow quayside in Cornwall.
In the early days, Jill’s role was split between running front of house, making the desserts and raising the couple’s three sons, while her former husband Rick was tied to the kitchen. Then, as the business expanded – initially with the opening of 14 bedrooms above the Seafood Restaurant and followed by a plethora of other outlets dotted around Padstow – Jill’s natural talent for interior design became apparent. Very soon, she was devoting all her time to creating the interiors of every restaurant.
The look has come a long way since the early days of the Seafood Restaurant, when fishing nets and masses of pictures adorned the wall of what was then more of a bistro. Today, the group, which started expanding beyond Cornwall just three years ago and now has 23 outlets, is renowned for its stylish but simple interiors, enlivened with splashes of colour from well-chosen fabrics and artworks.
Jill, who with Rick won the Special Award at the 2016 Cateys, loves what she does and, by her own admission, is “obsessed” with working hard at improving each interior, partly because of her own desire to “up the ante all the time” and partly to meet the increasing expectations of customers and guests.
She has learned as she has gone along and admits that she didn’t have a long-held desire to become an interior designer – she started simply because there was no-one else to do it. “I didn’t have a clue what to do at the beginning; my prime aim was to just make the restaurant look presentable,” she explains.
Now, guests and customers cannot fail to be impressed by the look of each establishment – whether that’s the simple blue and white tiling on the walls in Stein’s Fish & Chips in Padstow or the elegant Georgian interiors of Rick Stein, Marlborough, one of the group’s most recent ventures, which opened in October 2016.
It is in Marlborough that Jill talks about how her work has evolved over the years and the process she follows upon setting about designing a new restaurant. She is unsure how to describe her style, but knows from comments from others that it is distinctive. “People tell me that they can recognise my work when they visit one of our new restaurants,” she says. “Primarily, I like simplicity with a bit of eclecticism thrown in. While I always like to create something different with each restaurant – and there is certainly no brand look – I do stick to light, neutral colours, which have become more muted and warmer as we have moved away from the coast,” she explains.
The other key difference with the inland restaurants is the creation of a “more furnished” feel than in the coastal resorts of Cornwall and Sandbanks in Dorset, where the look is also more contemporary. Overall, there is a timeless quality about Jill’s work, but she recognises that time does indeed move on and tweaks are continually made to the way a restaurant looks, with a complete overhaul of each outlet taking place every 10 years or so.
Looking back now at the Habitat basket chairs and the Sanderson cushions that adorned the Seafood Restaurant in what was the second design she created for the business, she smiles, noting that a desire today by some designers to recreate a 1980s vibe makes these items very much in vogue again.
“The basis of all good restaurant design is that it has to work,” says Jill. “I will always have an idea about how I want the restaurant to look – largely driven by the location and the building – but I will then talk to the operations team about what they need in terms of the table configuration and the location of waiter stations. Once I know the general logistics of the space, I can then proceed.”
Ideally, Jill would like to put a central bar into every restaurant. “It creates a vibrancy and theatrical feel to the room,” she explains. “It allows for great people watching, whether that’s the barman fixing a cocktail or the customers coming and going.”
A central bar was introduced into the Seafood Restaurant during its latest redesign nine years ago, creating a focal point of the perennially busy outlet, which can serve around 300 covers daily during the peak summer months.
In Marlborough, which was previously divided up into offices, there is no one large space, so instead the bar was positioned close to the entrance, creating a buzz for guests as they walked through the door. Architects Stiff + Trevillion were instrumental in reconfiguring the space.
“Marlborough was particularly challenging, as we have five rooms over two floors, which makes it tricky to operate and creates a need for more staff,” says Jill.
However, despite the difficulties, Jill has created a cohesive design that flows from one space to another, with each room painted in a slightly different complementary hue from Farrow & Ball, including Shaded White, French Gray, Pointing, Dimpse and Plummett.
The blue fabrics that feature frequently in the coastal restaurants are also present, but interspersed with aquas, greys and greens for a more organic look. Plentiful wood – from the Brooke Antique distressed oak floor from Real Flooring Solutions to the wine cabinetry and the panelled walls – creates an overall soft feel.
There is plenty, though, that gives the design edge. The spoke-back chairs, for instance, provide an antidote to the banquettes, which are upholstered in a blue Designers Guild fabric and feature cushions in a Ralph Lauren fabric, while the solid stone table lamps offer a contrast to the distressed dresser from One World Trading upon which it stands. The Casablanca range of tiles from Mandarin Stone provides a bold floor covering in the still room and the cloakrooms.
The still room has purposely been located on the first floor with an open window onto one of the dining rooms. The siting of shelves of white wine on the landing, and of red wine in one of the other dining rooms, also creates activity and injects a lively ambience.
An artist’s eye
Artwork is important to all of Jill’s interiors. She often uses the internet to seek out exactly the right piece for a specific space, whether it is the impressive painting of a bowl of lemons tracked down from an Australian artist or the collection of six charcoal drawings from Tim Steward. Unsurprisingly, most of the pieces have a culinary theme.
In the early days Jill worked on her own, but since 2014, prior to the opening in Winchester of the Steins’ first restaurant outside of Cornwall, she has been joined by her eldest son, Ed, and his wife, Kate. Together they are a close-knit team and she is delighted to have them on board. Ed, a sculptor by profession, is more involved in the technical aspect of a refurbishment, while Kate, who studied at Central Saint Martins in London, works closely with Jill on the intricacies of the finished design.
“Kate is a very talented artist,” says Jill. “She has a very good eye and we have a very similar style. I trust her implicitly.”
Kate has recently completed the packaging design for a new range of in-house toiletries called Portdune, which have been commissioned from Cornish company Made for Life by Spiezia Organics. She is also creating designs for a collection of ceramics, jute bags and cushions for sale in Stein’s Gift Shop and online.
There is no hint that Jill may be considering scaling back her role within the Stein empire – she enjoys what she does today just as much as she ever has. However, she has decided to step back from the designs she took on from clients in the days following her separation from Rick. The most significant work she undertook was for Simon Nixon, the billionaire founder of Moneysupermarket.com, who commissioned her to design the houses within his holiday property portfolio, SimonEscapes, in Cornwall, Windermere and Barbados, as well as his private homes in Knightsbridge and Jersey.
“I’ve now decided not to take on any more outside commissions,” Jill says. “I really enjoyed the time away from the business – it was a great learning curve – but I’ve got enough to keep me busy here,” she says.
While there is no new restaurant on the immediate horizon, there are always design projects to keep Jill, Ed and Kate busy. As well as the possibility of expanding the Marlborough site into the property next door to create an additional bar area, there is lots to do back in Padstow – and most pressing is the refurbishment of St Petroc’s.
“It is in need of some TLC and a design that is more reflective of the building, which is the fifth-oldest house in Padstow,” says Jill. She explains that she intends to introduce warmer colours that are more fitting for its townhouse feel and that will bring it more in line with Ruby’s Bar, which opened adjacent to St Petroc’s last year and is probably one of Jill’s favourite designs.
“I’m also very proud of Marlborough as it is completely different to anywhere else,” explains Jill. “Charles [the Stein’s youngest son] says it is my best yet.”
When it comes to creating a new restaurant or batch of bedrooms, Jill Stein is inspired by a variety of different sources, but one of the biggest is Pinterest, which she uses to gather fabric and wallpaper samples, paint colours and furniture ideas. She is also an avid trawler of shops on her travels and likes to visit exhibitions such as Maison&Objet in Paris and the Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair in Battersea, south London.
Jill admires the work of several designers working within the hospitality sector, including Judy Hutson, who works across the Pig group of hotels with her husband Robin; and Olga Polizzi, owner of Hotel Tresanton in St Mawes, Cornwall, and Hotel Endsleigh in Milton Abbot, Devon, and the designer behind the Rocco Forte Hotels. “I also love what Nick Jones has created across Soho House & Co,” she says.
Jill is also inspired by interior designers Rose Uniacke and Christian Liaigre, and by Dutch design company Piet Boon.
The Stein portfolio
Jill Stein has been responsible for the design of every outlet across Seafood Trading, the parent company of the Stein businesses. They include:
In and around Padstow
- The Seafood Restaurant, 120 seats and 16 bedrooms
- St Petroc’s Hotel & Bistro, 50 seats and 10 bedrooms
- Rick Stein’s Café, 32 seats and three bedrooms
- Stein’s Fish & Chips, 40 seats
- Fisheries & Seafood Bar
- Ruby’s Bar
- The Cornish Arms, St Merryn, 140 seats inside, 100 outside
- St Edmunds House, six bedrooms
- Prospect House, four bedrooms
- Bryn Cottage, one bedroom, self-catering
- Stein’s Patisserie
- Rick Stein’s Cookery School
- Stein’s Deli
- Stein’s Gift Shop
- Stein’s at Trevone Farm, four self-catering properties
- Martindale, Penrose, four bedrooms, self-catering
- Rick Stein, Porthleven, near Helston, Cornwall. 90 seats inside, 20 outside
- Rick Stein’s Fish, Falmouth, Cornwall. 68 seats
- Rick Stein, Fistral, near Newquay, Cornwall. 100 seats
- Rick Stein, Barnes, London, 80 seats
- Rick Stein, Marlborough, Wiltshire, 84 seats
- Rick Stein, Sandbanks, Dorset, 200 seats
- Rick Stein, Winchester, Hampshire, 65 seats