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US designer Adam Tihany on his third project in London

21 April 2008

Refurbished for the first time in 17 years and relaunched as a new Italian restaurant, Apsleys at London's Lanesborough hotel managed to tempt renowned US designer Adam Tihany to work in the capital for only the third time. Tom Vaughan reports

Adam Tihany has boomerang eyebrows. He's dapper, suave and jokey say something amusing and the eyebrows shoot up like Jack Russells to a clap. "A dictaphone?" he asks in his Italian-cum-Israeli-cum-New York accent. "I've never heard it called that. It's a tape recorder."

The Italian background is thick in his aura. In another incarnation you could imagine him a charming doge. But he's not. Rather he's one of the pre-eminent restaurant, bar and hotel designers in the world. He's done sites for, and is friends with, Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter, Charlie Palmer, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wolfgang Puck culinary deity the likes of whom most designers would eat their assistant just to pitch to. His work is on show in Geneva, Rome, Seoul, Korea and across the USA.

He's sitting in Apsleys, the new restaurant at the Lanesborough hotel in Knightsbridge, London only the third site he has designed in London during his 30-year career. Sunk into one of the chairs he hand-picked, smiley in a tailored grey suit, he puts it this way: "Imagine me as a custom tailor. And say I want to develop the reputation of being the finest custom tailor in the world. Each suit would be different. I don't have a signature on the back saying Adam Tihany. They are all very subtle, very different. However, if you have a suit made by me and you see another, you know it is mine, you recognise it, you don't even have to ask. Then if you started seeing people from the other side of the tracks wearing them, you'd stop coming to me."

He's not being classist. He's far too blithe for elitist sentiment. "Don't write ‘Adam Tihany doesn't work for people from the other side of the tracks'," he corrects. What he means is, over the course of his career, he has chosen to work with top chefs and five-star properties because, in his own words, he loves that end of hospitality. To maintain the brand and appeal of his own design, he can't accept any pitch willy-nilly he is purposefully picky.

He turns down 95% of requests. Some of these, over the years, have come from London. Only Foliage, in Knightsbridge, and four-storey private club Monte's have secured his services. But the Lanesborough and Aspleys fit the bill perfectly. It was here he stayed a decade ago when working on Monte's, and he knows the site well. "To get into the restaurant, you have to come through the hotel lobby. You cannot help but buy into the DNA of the place. It is grand. I wanted to create a space that was in keeping with this brand of hospitality offered by the hotel."

The site was formerly the Conservatory, an English restaurant designed as a homage to that icon of Victorian grandeur, the Brighton Pavilion, complete with towering palm trees. It had stayed the same for 17 years before managing director Geoffrey Gelardi decided it was time for a change. Talks with a local designer dragged on for three months, terms and contracts bouncing about with no end in sight. Gelardi had become acquainted with Tihany when the latter designed Monty's, bumping into him later at the occasional industry event. So he got in touch, flew to Tihany's base in New York, and within 45 minutes of meeting had a verbal agreement in place, put down on paper the very next day.

The brief was to create a space that was light and refreshing in the day but moody and sexy at night. The structure of the restaurant, a courtyard-esque space topped by a baroque glass roof, and its role as the hotel's only restaurant, meant any design had to allow the mood to evolve throughout the day.

Swashbuckler

"I understand there was a bit of trepidation about touching this space," says Tihany, eyebrows primed. "So they brought in this swashbuckler who doesn't have any respect for anything… no, I'm only kidding… they brought in someone who is willing to accept that kind of challenge."

To facilitate a change in mood, Tihany installed three circular pastel chandeliers, flat-bottomed to lower the ceiling and negate the vacuum that night creates in the tall glass roof. In sunshine, light wraps around them, and the conservatory's the feature. At night they become centrepieces moodily lit, the room becomes warm and sexy. "Without them, it would be like someone had sucked the air out of the place," says Tihany.

There are often one or two features from a Tihany design that emboss themselves on the mind. In Foliage, it's the linear glass wine rooms and the silhouetted opulence of the bar liquor bottles stored on the shelves of a frosted-glass drinks room, backlit to paint bottle rows of russet, jade and mauve on the glass. In Apsleys, it's the chandeliers and Simon Casson's post-Renaissance collage. Eight feet by 12ft and facing the door, it's an Old Master ripped up and reassembled blind. Like taking apart a Bentley under a car magnet. "It feels like a post-Renaissance artist on LSD," says Tihany. "Maybe some Renaissance painter took some pills and just went nuts. We wanted something modern but that had a classical feel to it. This is it."

The rest of the room is elegant pastel and fabric wallpaper. Two private dining rooms are screened off in the corners, and a pianist in a suit tinkles for afternoon tea. Covers nudge 110, but you wouldn't guess it and, in all, the project cost about £2m.

While it's only Tihany's third sortie into the London restaurant scene, he is more than familiar with goings-on in the capital. Next year he is refurbishing Foliage - one restaurant on ground level and one in the basement is the only information he will divulge, although the bar is staying, he insists. And there are other sites around the city that he'd love to get his hands on, although he won't say which. It's not just London he's coveting, he'd love projects in Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin and Barcelona. "We were this close to doing something in Barcelona," he says. "But with every day that passes I'm glad we didn't. It turned out to be a crazy project."

His ease at international level comes partly from his upbringing. Born in Transylvania, he moved to Israel when young, was educated in Rome then moved to New York 35 years ago. He speaks seven languages fluently - "That's nothing: my mother speaks 10," he says - and is innately Italian in his style and persona his furniture is all made in Italy and his children all speak the language.

He has offices in New York and Rome, with staff numbers totalling 28, but still every decision made on a design has to pass through his desk. Despite turning down dozens more requests than the 8-10 projects he does a year, Tihany still goes to every pitch. "The reason I'm in this business is I like designing," he says. "Not because I like managing people per se."

He is out and about in the industry a lot. His friendships with the culinary heavyweights are well-known: Charlie Trotter, Pierre Gagnaire, Jean-Georges Vongerichten his phone-book must read like a who's who of 21st-century chefs. "I'm a foodie. I live to eat, not eat to live," he says. "The guys behind the stove - I have a particular fondness for them. Some of them are great friends of mine, some of them I observe from a distance. It's a profession that I always admire and always will."

Does he cook himself? "Yes. I love to try a dish in a restaurant then a week later at home try to make it myself from memory."

In fact, his relationship with restaurants extends beyond that of a designer. Until last year he owned four Italian restaurants - in New York, Santa Monica, Mexico City and Tel Aviv - all called Remi. He even worked front of house for the Manhattan restaurant when it opened 20 years ago. "I'd finish work at six o'clock, roll up my sleeves and go to the restaurant. Greeting people, running front of house being a de facto maître d'. There are still people in that neighbourhood who, when they see me, remember these times. ‘Mr Remi!' they'll say, ‘How are you? We miss you.' This is over a decade later. They have no idea who I am. I loved it I loved making people happy like that."

Professional development

For this reason, he says, most of the chefs he works with see him as a colleague, not a designer. "It was probably the most important part of my professional development, owning and operating restaurants. When I design a site we don't discuss table sizes or distances from the kitchen or what service stations need to be like. People take it for granted that these things are under consideration."

When he owned the Remi restaurants he made sure all his employees - 20 in his New York office, nine in his Rome office - spent a week every year working in one of them. "I didn't want to have professionals around me who didn't understand how restaurants work, what a kitchen door has to do. If they don't have that first-hand experience, it's just pretty drawings." The eyebrows jump, upturned Vs arched high on his brow.

When the interview finishes he lifts himself from the motif-ed fabric chair. He's off to make the most of the London sunshine - while it lasts, he says. It's due to snow on Sunday, I tell him. That evening he's stopping in on the River Café, a regular haunt of his time in England, and tomorrow it's lunch at the Fat Duck. Will he try to replicate the food at home? "No," he laughs. "Some things are best left to the experts." The very same sentiments the industry reserves for Tihany.

The Apsley dining room
The Apsley dining room
Food and wine at Apsleys

The man behind the Apsleys stove is Nick Bell. English by birth and with a training in classical French cooking, he went to work under Giorgio Locatelli at Zafferano from 1995 to 2000, then moved with him to Cecconi's, before heading in his own direction when Giorgio opened Locanda Locatelli.

Stints working for Mark Hix in Barbados and Boisdale gastropubs in London gave him the desire for his own site, and he opened his own food-led pub in West Sussex. After two years of trading, and with constant interest in the site, he decided to sell up. Returning to London wasn't actually part of his plans, but when the opportunity to work at the Lanesborough arose, he found it hard to resist.

The decision to change the restaurant from the traditional English cuisine of the former Conservatory restaurant to Italian was made shortly after the refurbishment plans were put into action. "Italian food is simple, it's uncomplicated, everyone likes it, it's trendy and you can change it as often as you like," says food and beverage director Ajaz Sheik. Bell fitted the mould as a chef able to offer what the hotel was looking for.

"To find the right chef who fit in with our concept was not easy," says managing director Geoffrey Gelardi. "If someone goes in there and doesn't find what they want on the menu, we will cook if for you. There are a lot of chefs who don't like that, but Nick is very flexible."

Bell's food is very much in the Locatelli mould of Italian, borrowing from across the country - the north in the winter, the south in the summer - cooking seasonal, appealing food. The split between outside and guest custom is about 70:30 and, while the team want to attract some younger clientele than might have visited before, this split is expected to stay about the same.

The main aim behind the refurbishment, says Sheik, was to relaunch what had in the last few years been a slightly moribund operation. "We're hoping to get away from what we've done in the past. Ten years ago it was working in the last year that hasn't been the case," he says. "The plan is: simple food, get the covers up, the prices down, and get the best offering on wine we can by the glass."

• Example dishes: spring vegetable salad with grey mullet roe (£12.50) calf's head salad with shallots and capers (£9.50) oxtail ravioli (small £12/large £18) line-caught sea bass with artichokes and pesto (£30) veal sweetbreads with peas, broad beans and mint (£19.50).

Wine

Apsleys aims to offer the best available vintage by the glass. This has been achieved, says sommelier Andrew Connor, by installing an Enomatic system. Imported at a cost of about £11,000 a unit, the machines can keep up to eight bottles of wine fresh for up to a month by eliminating the oxygen that will age the wine. Connor can now offer wines such as a 1999 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva, Castelgiocondo for £45 a 175ml glass 2001 Sassicaia, Tenuta San Guido for £60 per 175ml or a 2004 Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru Garenne, Larue for £25 per 175ml.

Recent and forthcoming Italian openings

  • Osteria Stecca Recently opened restaurant in St John's Wood, under chef-patron Stefano Stecca.
  • L'Anima Formerly head chef at St Alban, Francesco Mazzei's own venture L'Anima is now on course for a May/June opening.
  • Bocca di Lupo Due to open in Soho in September. Owned by head chef Jacob Kenedy and restaurant manager/sommelier Victor Hugo.
  • York & Albany A restaurant, bar, rooms and deli headed up by Angela Hartnett, due to open in Regent's Park in late summer.
  • Murano A fine-dining restaurant in Mayfair from Angela Hartnett, where she will be spending most of her time despite heading up York & Albany as well. Due to open in late summer.
  • Manicomio A second site for the Chelsea Italian owned by Ninai and Andrew Zarach is planned to open in Gutter Lane later this year.

Recent Tihany design projects

  • Le Cirque, New York
  • Per Se, New York
  • Jade on 36, Shanghai
  • Amber, Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel, Hong Kong
  • The Line, Shangri-La hotel, Singapore
  • Cravings, Mirage Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas
  • Aureole, Las Vegas
  • Lafite, Shangri-La hotel, Kuala Lumpur
  • Foliage, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park hotel, London
TagsDesign
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