London's dash to 'toilet restaurants'

London's dash to 'toilet restaurants'

Eateries located in former public toilets are spreading throughout the UK. You gotta go
The Attendant
The Attendant is a popular London cafe that occupies a former Victorian toilet.

When the first toilet-themed restaurant, Modern Toilet, opened in Taipei in 2004, public reaction was mixed.

Was it weird, funny or just plain unsavory?

Whatever the answer, the concept’s popularity quickly became obvious -- the chain now has successful franchises across Asia.

London, however, has put a new spin on the business.

Not toilet-themed restaurants, restaurants in former toilets

Tom Sellers of StoryHotshot chef Tom Sellers, who recently opened Story restaurant, knows how to attract a crowd. One of London’s most hotly anticipated openings of 2013 is Tom Sellers’ new restaurant, Story, which opened last week.

Story’s hearty and inventive offerings includes a 10-course menu featuring such dishes as burnt onion, apple, gin and thyme; crab with smoked leek, rapeseed, pear and lovage; lamb bread, sheep yogurt and wild garlic; and beef cheek, stout and cauliflower yeast.

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The 26-year-old Sellers’ resume includes Thomas Kellers’ Michelin-starred restaurants French Laundry and Per Se in the United States, as well as a stint at what some call the world’s best restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen.

It’s not just Sellers’ culinary pedigree that’s piqued interest in his new project. It’s the fact that his new restaurant is located on the site of a former toilet block.

Sellers isn’t alone in his curious site selection -- Story’s story follows on the heels of another recent opening, The Attendant, a subterranean London cafe that occupies a former Victorian toilet built around the 1890s.

Unlike Story, The Attendant has kept many of its restored period features.

“We kept everything, including the original teak Attendant’s office door, which we converted into our little kitchen,” says Attendant owner Peter Tomlinson. “There is even a 1950s hand drier still on the wall.

“Floors, walls and urinals made by Doulton & Paisley at their Lambeth Factory on the shore of the River Thames in 1890 are all original.”

With the addition of wooden panels, each urinal has been transformed into a seating cubicle.

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As far as Tomlinson is concerned, “it’s no different to an espresso bar or restaurant in the middle of a department store which has no natural light.”

Rest easy, the place has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.

A third London public toilet has recently been sold under auction, this one with planning permission to become a restaurant with a roof terrace. The Walham Green toilets in Fulham will be stripped down and rebuilt, leaving little hint of its former life.

Not just London

London isn’t alone in using former toilet space for hip restaurants.

On the east coast of England, Toulouse restaurant in Westcliff-on-Sea is housed in former sea-facing public toilets.

In the west country, the Sea Mills Community Initiative in Bristol has created a community-run cafe in disused toilets.

Even footballers are getting in on the action, with former Rangers star Jorg Albertz backing a restaurant project on the site of disused toilets in Glasgow.

Restaurants aren’t the only uses for revamped toilets. In fact, the re-purposing of disused toilets started with bars.

In east London, Public Life nightclub in trendy Shoreditch was located in an old toilet before closing early last year. Cellar Door in central London is a popular subterranean cocktail and cabaret lounge. West London’s Ginglik was created within the confines of a toilet built for the 1908 Olympic games.

Business behind the business

The AttendantCleaned. Disinfected. Delicious. The Attendant has kept many of its restored period features. So, what’s behind the toilet-to-restaurant boom?

Affordability is a driving factor.

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Many public toilets have been decommissioned or fallen into disrepair and been neglected. With property prices high and available space low, disused public toilets have become prime real estate.

Peter Frankum, director of urban design at property developer Savills, sees regeneration as a perfect solution.

“Local authorities have been trying to deal with demands of budget reduction and the delivery of the regeneration of urban areas,” says Frankum. “The re-use and conversion of high maintenance and underused buildings to more profitable and beneficial uses is a way of reducing maintenance costs and enhance local areas.”

Frankum also notes that changes to local regulations have made it easier to implement urban regeneration in former public spaces.

That’s good news for young restaurateurs such as Tom Sellers -- and diners who don't mind a little historic business with their restaurant business.

Story, 201 Tooley Street, London SE1; www.restaurantstory.co.uk

Qin Xie is a London based freelance journalist and trained chef. When not infiltrating Michelin restaurants as a kitchen tourist, she writes about food, drink and travel. Her work has appeared on Yahoo, FT, The Times and of course CNN. She has also just started working on her first book.

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