Fast and very hot

Fast-food outlets are the latest converts to the church of design... From urban-look Italian eating on the go to pushing the boundaries for burgers, Helen Parton looks at what’s on the menu in terms of pacy design for the dine-and-dash brigade

Meat Liquor is anti-corporate; it's sticking two fingers up at the Establishment; it's a fine line between offending people and people being interested in it. Strong words indeed from Matt Smith, director with design agency Shed, which has worked on Meat Liquor, one of a number of concepts for the fast-food sector that are really taking interiors to a new level.

'To have a chance to push the boundaries of what may be considered indecent, inappropriate and downright wrong, and to have this concept wholeheartedly backed by the client, is one in a million,' he continues. 'The design itself is born out of its location. The site was previously an Italian restaurant and it has this pseudo-renaissance style.'

The rococo dome and ornate columns and architraves in this underground space beneath a car park just behind London's Oxford Street were treated to a punk makeover. Subversive murals that would make Michelangelo weep were created by a team of illustrators and graphic artists from the I Love Dust collective, who adorned practically every available surface.

To say there was an open design brief is something of an understatement. 'Liquor' signs in red are suspended in the windows and, together with the oxblood red leather banquettes, the effect is distinctly bordello-like. This is enhanced by industrial cage lamps, hooked and gathered around galvanised steel hooks and suspended over blackened steel frames. Red cord is then looped from the centre of the dome to the salvaged industrial work lamps adding an S&M flourish to proceedings. Rubber flooring and an 8m-long stainless steel bar are concessions to practicality while a more industrial aesthetic is created by butcher-style curtains of floor-length, clear-plastic vertical strips, which lead to the VIP area.

UK burger bars have come a long way from Wimpy, that's for sure. The Byron Burger concept first appeared in London in 2007 and there are now a dozen of them across the capital. Lucky Chip is a pop-up version of the classic American Fifties diner, located at the oh-so-fashionable Sebright Arms in Bethnal Green. But back to Meat Liquor. Its original location was a burger van known as the Meat Wagon, the brainchild of Yianni Papoutsis. This gained a cult following when it set up a permanent location. Pitt Cue is another great example of a mobile gourmet venture, this time the American BBQ concept featuring ribs, hot wings and bourbon, has set up home just off Carnaby Street. In the current economic climate it makes sense to get the fanbase established before opening your doors, rather than the other way around.

The Meat Liquor concept continues its momentum with the opening of a site in Covent Garden later this year. The client is insistent that the interiors will be different, while taking some of the same reds and raw, roughly hewn surfaces that were intrinsic to the initial venture.

Coco di Mama, literally translated as 'Mummy's Boy' is doing for pasta what Meat Liquor is doing for burgers. Founded by friends Daniel Land and Jeremy Sanders, it has the interior design and branding, from the web to the packaging, and masterminded by Afroditi Krassa. It's a new take on Italian food and its first outlet opened on Fleet Street in spring last year.

Says Krassa: 'We deliberately didn't want to go down the route of creating that whole rustic-Italian theme. Instead, we looked at a much fasterpaced version of Italy, as you'd find in Milan or Turin, that's in part inspired by the fashion business. It's a very urban look.'

Subverting the traditional idea of Italian eateries, Krassa has taken the trattoria-style gingham used on tablecloths and applied it to coffee lids and web pages instead and made it a monochrome pattern for the floorboards. Black and white feature heavily overall, from the signage to the photography on the walls. Elsewhere is a mix of materials such as concrete, reconstituted stone and oak floorboards, while geometric motifs keep things looking sleek.

Krassa is also creative director for itsu. After working on the initial concept with itsu founder Julian Metcalfe several years ago, Krassa is spearheading an interiors refresh. 'We wanted to move it forward from being about Asian food specifically to being more about healthy food. It's never going to be an authentic Japanese food concept. Instead, it's about being wellpriced, quick, and low in fat. The new design has a condensed seating system. It's a far more modular space, which allows many more covers.'

It was also about creating a softer environment. 'Many of the new locations are in more residential areas and we wanted to have a more casual evening environment,' says Krassa. Formica, wallpaper and bamboo helped create textural contrast while pendant lighting smoothes the transition from the daytime into what's known as 'night-mode itsu'.

Materials are hard at work at Nando's too. The purveyors of peri peri chicken commissioned architects at Buckley Gray Yeoman to work on a number of its sites. 'At Manchester, we used poured concrete for the bar and the waiting area, which created lovely textural interest as well as satisfying the client's desire for something that would have longevity,' says Matt Yeoman, a director at Buckley Gray Yeoman. For the site of the 80-seat restaurant in Mary Street, Dublin, the architects employed the services of a wicker artist, who created a woven ceiling using lath and plaster and willow that works with the studwork. The effect is wonderfully sculptural and almost seems to float above the diners. The tactile willow panels form a backdrop to the booth seating area and are low enough to be touched.

Contrast this then, with the more industrial elements of the interior. As customers enter the restaurant they are greeted by a servery area, clad at random intervals with exposed reinforcement bars, a material usually concealed within concrete, to create a ribbon effect. Uplighters and downlighters help to transform the appearance of this, highlighting the flexibility of the space from day to evening. Apart from a set layout for the cook line and a dash of feng shui, the architects were afforded a good deal of freedom, as Buckley Gray Yeoman architect Paul Thrush explains: 'From brightly coloured, hand-made wall tiles to reclaimed furniture, the range of materials, textures and colours speak volumes about the project's adventurously open brief.' Matt Yeoman adds: 'Once we'd done a concrete bar or a willow ceiling, the client says, "Don't ever show me that again", such is his desire for each layout to be completely site specific. The brief was about really understanding the Nando's DNA and coming up with a surprising, clever response to it.' The interiors here colour in well that grey area between fast food and the traditional restaurant.

Some of the best-known fast-food brands are certainly not content to rest on their laurels. Patrick Nourget has been tasked with redesigning McDonald's restaurants across France with the aim of attracting the family market, as well as the typical teenage demographic. Spaces are divided by sophisticated plywood cabinets, shelving and booths. Nourget employed a plant metaphor, hence the deployment of an expanse of timber. He also included his own metal chair Still for Lapalma, with a new high stool version designed specifically for the project.

To keep up with the digital age and to make it easier for parents with children in tow, customers can order at the counter or from terminals in specially designated family booths. The colour scheme is largely neutral, with splashes of citrus colours on metal storage boxes and red and dark green upholstery. The use of ceramic tiles gives the flooring a warm, graphical quality without recourse to carpet.

Looking further afield, design agency Outofstock has created a new interior scheme for Burger King, again looking to attract the family market. It took the idea of the brand's flame grilling and aligned it more with the outdoors: barbecuing, camping and family get-togethers, leading to the theme of the garden and greenery running through the scheme.

Lounge seats and ottomans are upholstered with water-repellent outdoor fabrics. The lounge seating area is set against a rustic collage wall of materials and textures, from concrete to clay bricks, wood veneers to copper and brass. An overhead roof trellis and suspended clay, concrete and aluminium pots as pendant lamps continue the garden theme.

Back in the UK, even Greggs the bakers has upped its interiors game. Its new Greggs Moment concept has a much higher design element to it - think Chesterfield sofas, bookshelves and rugs... An element of Britishness is also in evidence with the Union Jack cushions, bowler-hat lampshades and wooden ducks flying across the wall.

Where is this trend heading then? Matt Smith of Shed already talks jokingly about 'second-album syndrome' when creating the next Meat Liquor venture, due to appear later this year. But judging by the queues of the original site in Marylebone, the public's appetite for more design-led fast food has not been sated just yet.

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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