In a city where property prices are so ludicrous a single room costs the same as a family house up North, business owners are having to get creative. Inventive basements and sky-high extensions are no longer attractive design extras but necessities. Not only do businesses have to maximise the space in which they can afford to retail, cook or consult with clients, but they need a hook; something that their competitors cannot offer. Italian chain Buono Sera have embraced this challenge with imagination in their Chelsea restaurant; Buono Sera @ The Jam. What "The Jam" refers to I know not, although if I had to hazard a guess it could refer to this problem of space maximisation - how to "jam" as many people keen to eat Italian food as possible into a wafer thin slice of SW3 real estate?
Walking past the restaurant you could easily miss it, dwarfed by neighbouring Paperchase, but at second glance there it is. And clearly its discreet entrance does little to dampen its trade; when the Accidental Cousin and I dined there yesterday the place was buzzing.
Go through the glass door into this sliver of an eaterie and you feel like you are entering a tree-house. Wood is everywhere, and the tables go upwards. Yep, this is the only restaurant I've ever been in where I have been required to scale a ladder to reach my table; and in high heels, I can tell you, this is a serious matter. With a traditional layout the restaurant could probably feed about 30 or so people, who if they didn't already know each other intimately when they arrived would certainly leave with that dubious qualification. But by building what are essentially bunk-benches above the existing booths this number of restaurant covers doubles. (Although I fear the odd tipsy diner may well be lost on the descent once in a while.)
When I booked I was asked if we wanted to sit "upstairs" which invokes the same grandeur as the estate agent who once tried to sell us 3 bedrooms with built in bunk-beds as "3 double rooms with mezzanine sleeping areas". But in the spirit of adventure (remember how exciting it was to climb a ladder at bedtime when you were 8?) I said yes, and on arrival, up the Accidental Cousin and I climbed. After getting over the initial wave of vertigo we settled into our timber cabin, and had a very nice meal; mains were pretty standard Italian fare, desserts were fabulously beautiful ice cream creations. But all food was surpassed by the novelty of this restaurant's layout. The wait-staff hauled themselves up and down the metal scaffolding-like poles holding up the second layer of tables with glasses of wine and huge plates of food with great skill. Fellow diners clattered and chattered, seemingly unperturbed by the proximity of the air-conditioning system to their heads, or how only a bit of scaffolding and timber separated them from the floor a few feet below.
Has it come to pass then that we go out for dinner not to eat but to be entertained by novelty and clever set design? I suspected as much after my experience drinking in a freezing ice cave last summer. Restauranteurs must be both thrilled that the pressure is off their cuisine, but also disappointed that their hard work in the kitchen is eclipsed by their haberdashery. We may no longer go out for dinner and actually look forward to the food we will eat, but I shall remain grateful for the novelty themes and obscure decorations when service is slow; at least I'll have something to look at while I wait.