Restaurants and bars have been around in tall buildings for ages - but just recently there seems to have been a rush of new openings. Janie Manzoori-Stamford finds out why high-altitude catering is so popular
Sky-high hospitality is not a new phenomenon but it is definitely on the up. The past 10 years have seen a spate of operators opening several storeys up in cities across the country.
Contract caterer Searcys picked up a sought- after deal to run the restaurant at the top of 30 St Mary Axe (the Gherkin) in 2004 and three years later Altitude 360 London took over the 29th floor of Millbank Tower in Westminster to create a state-of-the-art multipurpose event venue.
The past 12 months has seen Marco Pierre White open Steakhouse Bar and Grill on floor 25 of Birmingham's Cube development, Sushi Samba and Duck & Waffle launched on the top floors of the Heron Tower in the City of London, and the Crown Group reveal its Kaleido restaurant on the top floor of the National Football Museum in Manchester.
The lofty launches continue into next year at iconic London skyscraper the Shard, the tallest building in Western Europe, when Shangri-La will open a 202-bedroom hotel on floors 35 to 52, and Aqua Restaurant Group and Zuma and Roka founders Rainer Becker and Arjun Waney will operate bars and restaurants across floors 31 to 33.
But the history of high-rise restaurants and bars goes right back to swinging sixties, when the Top of the Tower venue opened in the Post Office Tower (now the BT tower) in 1966 - it closed in 1980 for security reasons. Even earlier than that came the bar and restaurant on the 28th floor of Hilton Park Lane, which opened in 1963.
The top-floor hospitality offer started out as the Roof Bar and Restaurant before reincarnating as Windows on the World and then eventually Galvin at Windows, when brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin took over in 2006.
James Glover, Hilton's vice-president for food and beverage for Europe, describes it as an interesting case study because, while the restaurant has always delivered a consistent performance, it has never done as well as it is doing now.
"It's a question of attitude. It's a fantastic product that Chris has come up with and together with Fred Sirieix on the service side and André Garrett in the kitchen the team is fantastic," he explains. "But your operation has to be better than the view."
According to Glover, the fact that Galvin at Windows has spectacular views over London is a bonus and it's crucial that the restaurant is able to stand on its own two feet. He's not alone in this sentiment.
Shimon Bokovza, founder-owner of Samba Brands Management - the company behind two of London's newest restaurants, Sushi Samba and Duck & Waffle - agrees: "We want people to come here for the food and beverage, not just the view. We've worked very hard on our menus to make sure of that. There was a lot of investment and attention given to the food."
But there's a lot more to sky-high hospitality than competing with the view. There are several logistical challenges that need to be considered and overcome. For a start, the space available more often than not comes at a premium, which means that no square foot can be wasted. There simply isn't room for unprofitable back-of-house areas.
The Duck and Waffle
Creative use of space
In some cases, such as Tower 42 - home to the Michelin-starred Rhodes 24 restaurant and penthouse bar Vertigo, both operated by Restaurant Associates - this results in a creative use of space, as Romain Colombi, deputy general manager says the organisation of storage is very challenging. "The kitchen in Rhodes 24 is very compact so while some storage is kept on the same level, we also occupy space on level 40," he explains.
Samba Brands had to go one step further. Goods-in, storage and employee facilities are all housed in the sub-basement of the Heron Tower, while the offices, including sales and reservations, are based about a block away.
"The infrastructure is in the basement, which makes it challenging from a security point of view, from a receiving point of view… time is being wasted," says Bokovza. "We had no choice but it taught us a good lesson. We are now centralising all our reservations in the USA, too.
"Operating in this sort of space has its own pluses and its own minuses. You just need to recognise them as quickly as possible and correct it."
With storage often kept so far from the kitchens and front of house, meticulous plans to ensure they're in the right place when needed must also be prepared. As Hilton's Glover points out, you can't nip out if you don't have enough potatoes or you're missing a bottle of vodka.
"You can't just pop down to the stores because that will take forever so you have to be very much more organised to make sure you have what you need," he says. "Another challenge is the number of people that you can have in your venue from a health and safety point of view."
This is one of the criteria that prompted the refurbishment of Cloud 23 bar at the top of Hilton Manchester Deansgate hotel. In a move that is not usually possible in such lofty locations, Hilton is extending the space by using a bit of creativity and turning an L-shaped room into a U.
"The last leg of the U is currently an executive lounge but we can convert that space to extend the bar," explains Glover. "We'll use it as an executive lounge during the day but extend the bar during the evening to improve the number of people that we can have up there."
Installing the necessary utilities to run a fully-fledged kitchen is another hurdle to overcome and in many cases, perhaps unsurprisingly, this comes at a cost. In a new build, such as the Heron, ventilation, extraction and waste were all built in from the beginning. But firing up gas stoves 40 storeys up required Samba Brands to ensure the pressure was increased too.
Despite all the extra hoops to jump through to ensure a sky-high operation is successful there are, of course, many added benefits, too - not least the attraction of a spectacular view. One that might be harder to quantify but is certainly invaluable is the impact it has on the staff because, according to Glover, there will be a tremendous sense of pride among them.
He says: "That's something that Fred at Galvin at Windows hammers home all the time. He wants everyone to feel that it's their restaurant; that they should want to do the best possible job that they can do, for themselves. The staff up there tend to have a greater sense of proprietorship."
Working at height
Deliveries Is there a dedicated service elevator or will you need to work outside of guests' visiting hours? Or, in the case of a hotel, how many other services - such as housekeeping and maintenance - will want their fair share of the use of the lifts? Be well organised.
Waste What goes up must come down. If you do need to use the same elevators as your guests, albeit at different times, make sure they are left clean, tidy and - importantly - smell-free.
Gas The pressure needed to pump gas up a tall building is greater than at street level. Consider the cost implications. Perhaps an alternative cooking method, such as induction, might be a better way to go.
Safety Roof terraces and balconies will be subject to strict safety guidelines so it's essential to consult with your local authority to ensure you comply.
Sushi Samba atop the Heron Tower
Rooftop bars and restaurants
There's no doubt that the promise of a fantastic view is appealing but opening a kitchen at the top of a very tall building is very expensive. That's perhaps one of the reasons there has been huge growth in the number of rooftop bars and restaurants opening in slightly less lofty locations. Here are some of the best:
Vista Bar at the Trafalgar, Westminster The Trafalgar's sky bar on the sixth floor has an unrivalled view of the London landscape. It was recently expanded to accommodate 180 people and offers food and cocktails as well as a live grill.
Babylon at the Roof Gardens, Kensington The Babylon restaurant can seat 162 for dinner in the lush oasis of urban calm 100ft up from the hustle and bustle of Kensington High Street.
5th View Champagne & Seafood Bar, Waterstones Piccadilly Elior extended its partnership with client Waterstones in 2010 by turning premium retail space on the 5th floor of the book chain's flagship store into a destination seafood and Champagne bar.
The roof terrace at the Varsity hotel & spa, Cambridge Seven floors up is a brushed wood roof terrace with 360-degree views of historic Cambridge. In a bid to maximise the potential for the space, the Varsity also periodically screens classic films during the summer months.
Sky Bar at the Point Hotel, Edinburgh Floor-to-ceiling windows ensure guests don't miss an inch of the view when it opens on the first Thursday of every month.
A brace of new towers are planned or under construction for the capital. No word on whether there will definitely be room for hospitality operators yet, but with property developers keen to ensure their assets are occupied, there is bound to be room for negotiation.
|The Pinnacle||63||2014?||Construction on hold until at least January 2013|
|The Leadenhall Building||48||2014||aka "The Cheesegrater"|
|20 Fenchurch Street||39||2014||aka "The Walkie-Talkie" - to feature top-floor public viewing deck and sky gardens|