Around ten years ago, restaurants in London started to look different. For one thing, all the tablecloths disappeared. Diners sat at artfully bare wood tables on understated (and often uncomfortable) metal chairs, looking at menus written on chalkboards. The walls were raw concrete or exposed brick, and filament light bulbs hung from the ceiling. The most popular restaurants of the time – Hawksmoor, Dirty Bones and Pitt Cue Company, which managed to make its Newburgh Street location look like a warehouse in the Meatpacking District – embraced the new design trend. Partly inspired by the industrial chic look that had swept New York and spawned restaurants like Craft, and partly indebted to the low-key vibe of iconic London eatery St. John; the aim was to showcase what was on the plate, rather than the walls.
“I was calling it the ‘bricks and bulbs movement’,” says Simon Rawlings, creative director at London interior design firm David Collins Studio. “It became much more about the food than the environment. People were more willing to eat at neighbourhood restaurants, not necessarily having to go to premium locations. The filament bulb and the stripped-back effect had taken over.”
Fast forward to 2019 and people are queuing around the block for a restaurant with tablecloths. And not just any tablecloths: starched white ones kept in place with kitsch little clips. There are also fringed cushions, blue and pink-striped upholstery, gilded mosaic countertops and carpets louder than those of any regional Wetherspoons. A huge plant engulfs the ground floor ceiling, while downstairs hides a Scorsese-esque subterranean dining room, lined with gold velour booths. Outside is painted a crane-your-head-to-look shade of canary yellow.
The menu is just as loud: cacio e pepe pasta made inside a huge wheel of cheese, ten-layer lasagne and ‘Robert de Nitro’ pizza. Cocktails are served in mugs with boobs. Everything comes with burrata. The vibe is unapologetic, Italian maximalism. This restaurant is – in every possible sense of the word – extra.
I’m talking, of course, about Gloria, the restaurant opened by French dining group Big Mamma in Shoreditch earlier this year. Eating at Gloria is a trip – from the almost laughably Italian waitstaff in matching pink outfits to dishes with names like ‘Filippo’s spicy balls.’ Within weeks of opening, it had glowing reviews from the Evening Standard, the Guardian, the Telegraph and what felt like the entire world on Instagram. Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin began hers by saying, “I should loathe Gloria. It’s a great, fat fake, not so much restaurant as stage set, a cod-Italian import,” before admitting that she was totally won over by the stracciatella.
Last month, Big Mamma opened a second restaurant in Fitzrovia. Circolo Popolare is more of the same: a 280-cover Sicilian-inspired trattoria with bottles of spirits covering every wall and fairy light-bedecked plantlife swamping the ceiling. Evening Standard restaurant critic Jimi Famurewa has already named it the “hottest place in town.”
“You could say there wasn’t the need for another place with pizza and pasta,” says Adam Hyman, founder of restaurant industry website CODE Hospitality. “But the point is, Big Mamma have done it a different way. They’ve embraced the slightly crazy party side, where you can go and get drunk and have fun.”
But what inspired this aesthetic departure from bricks and bulbs to crazy parties? Of course, restaurant trends come and go – as Rawlings notes, “the minute you start putting that look into shopping centres and new buildings, it loses authenticity.” But something about how enthusiastically London has embraced Gloria and Circolo Popolare suggests there’s a bigger force at play here. Bigger, even, than Gloria’s metre-long pizzas and Circolo Popolare’s comically giant menus.
Founded in 2013, Big Mamma operates six similarly bold Italian restaurants in Paris, as well as the 1,500-seater La Felicità food market, purported to be the biggest restaurant space in Europe. It also has a restaurant in Lille. London is the group’s first location outside of France, but the mission remains the same: zany interiors, a young, Italian staff and crowd-pleasing dishes.
“A memorable meal is about the whole experience in the restaurant,” Victor Lugger, co-founder of Big Mamma, tells me. “The quality is essential, but if it's paired with good atmosphere, then it rises to the next level. We are not just feeding people, we share a moment with them.”
Lugger describes opening Gloria, the group’s first restaurant outside of France, as “a huge challenge” due to the competitive nature of London’s restaurant scene. (The city’s continuing spate of restaurant closures can’t have helped either.) Perhaps because of this pressure, Big Mamma doubled down on both restaurants’ design scheme, sourcing inspiration from travels around Italy and tiny details like the colourful fridge magnets that cover Circolo Popolare’s bathroom, “which we saw on an Italian grandma's fridge.” Gloria and Circolo Popolare are clearly the result of countless hours of work and, it must be assumed, a near limitless budget.
“Our memories of Italy are always the core inspiration behind the designs of our restaurants,” Lugger says. “Gloria feels like Capri in the seventies – warm and ultra-colourful with a little Big Mamma thrown in. Circolo is like a party. It’s like being at a friend’s wedding in mid-summer by the coast in Sicily. It feels like you’re out on the terrace as the sun sets, with a live band playing and trays of food and drink being shared everywhere.”
Of course, you can’t talk about restaurants that look like Gloria and Circolo Popolare without mentioning Instagram. The location tags for both throw up hundreds of pasta pull #foodporn shots and tables of friends grinning amid the over-the-top decor. Gloria even has a pizza named the ‘Regina Instagram.’
“When Circolo has those thousands of bottles of spirits lining the walls, that is obviously very Instagrammable – it looks cool,” says Hyman. “You can’t ignore the power of social media.”
Rawlings agrees that almost every new restaurant now factors Instagram into its design. “Everybody is craving to stand out because of Instagram,” he says. “People are tired of the same old things and the fact that they’ve been repeated on every high street around the world. People are really looking for different experiences now. That’s where this” – the success of places like Gloria and Circolo – “is coming from.”
Gloria and Circolo Popolare are undeniably Instagrammable, but I can’t quite get on board with the idea that people visit simply for the ’gram – especially when trend forecasts suggest that we are moving away from the overly curated Instagram ‘look.’ It just doesn’t seem like solid enough grounds on which to build restaurant hype, much less one that compels Grace Dent to praise it as “hopelessly optimistic, wanton fun.”
“Instagram is kind of a slippery slope,” notes Hyman, “especially if the food is being made for Instagram, because that is not the right way to look at food. You could have the ugliest plate of food that looks like brown mulch, but is actually so tasty.” I’ve eaten at both Gloria and Circolo Popolare and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the dishes, with actually imaginative vegan options and many ingredients sourced direct from Italy. As Famurewa put it in his Standard review, “standards are generally higher than you would expect them to be at a place with a giant, wipe-clean menu laden with eyebrow-waggling puns.”
No, the appeal of Gloria and Circolo Popolare is about more than Insta. More, even, than the food maybe. It’s the whole experience. The excitable waiters insisting you finish your meal with a glass of limoncello; the two-way mirrors on the toilet cubicle doors that might be the most coke-y bathroom design feature of all time. Eating at Gloria isn’t that much more expensive than dinner at PizzaExpress, but it’s about a million times more entertaining.
“We used to go out for something to eat, then for a drink, then to a club,” says Rawlings. “Now the restaurant is your night out. Everything has changed, so that is your whole experience. Every single thing that you touch now in these restaurant spaces – the presentation, the music, the lighting – all of these things are now being curated by the designers and restaurateurs to elevate their offer above and beyond what everyone else is doing.”
With almost half of Britain’s nightclubs closing over the last decade, maybe oversized plates of beef carpaccio and novelty cocktails are how we get our kicks now. There has certainly been a change in attitudes towards alcohol, with a growing number of young people adopting ‘sober curious’ lifestyles. Combine this with an economic climate that makes home ownership or even a stable job out of reach for most, and it’s little wonder that millennials want experiences to share on Insta stories, rather than material objects or forgotten boozy nights.
For Big Mamma, giving diners an experience to remember is at the core of its design ethos. The whole point of the lampshades and silly puns on the menu is to make you forget you’re in London. “It's like going on a holiday,” Lugger says. “At first, you're in slight shock by the new environment. It feels new and maybe a little strange, but ten minutes later, you've totally settled in and are ready to enjoy the whole experience.”
The world today is a very different to the one that gave us the bricks and bulbs trend. Years of Conservative austerity cuts have deepened societal divides, the environment is fucked and we’re months away from crashing out of the EU without a plan. Gloria and Circolo Popolare offer a dolce vita reprieve from this increasingly cursed news cycle. Plus, they seem to only hire Italians, which is about as anti-Brexit as you can get. It’s a holiday without the carbon footprint-induced guilt of an EasyJet flight to Palermo. Or maybe it’s just a nice place to take selfies and eat carbonara as the world ends. Rawlings puts the success of Gloria and Circolo Popolare more succinctly: “It’s escapism.”
Whatever it is, it’s a lot more fun than exposed concrete walls. And in these already grey and trying times, we certainly need it.