Batman begins: how Park Row is bringing theatrics to food

By Stefan Chomka contact

- Last updated on GMT

Inside the new Dc Comics Batman-inspired restaurant Park Row

Related tags: Park Row, James Bulmer, Restaurant, Fine

Wonderland Restaurants has thrown the doors open to an immersive restaurant unlike any other on these shores. But is Park Row comic genius or a flawed hero?

GUESTS AT PARK ROW ENTER VIA A HIDDEN DOORWAY BEHIND A BOOKCASE BEFORE DESCENDING A DARK CIRCULAR STAIRCASE​ leading down to the depths of the subterranean Soho restaurant, their way lit only by a towering column of pulsing cylindrical lights. Dubbed The Batman restaurant due to the fact that it has been inspired by the DC Universe of comic book titles, in particular the world occupied by The Dark Knight and his colourful cohorts, the feeling that you are about to enter the bat cave or maybe the terrifying world of Gotham City as imagined by director Tim Burton in the 1989 film is palpable. The glowing doorway that awaits you at the bottom from which an ‘emotion-triggering mist’ creeps does little to disabuse you of this sensation.

Push through the door and... what you are greeted with on the other side isn’t exactly what you might have expected. Instead of a dimly lit, gloomy room with an Axis-chemical-factory-meets-Gotham-sewer-vibe (admittedly not a great look for a place serving food and drink) is a bright, vast room of high lit ceilings, marbled and pink carpeted flooring, and hues of pinks and blues, yellows and jades that complement the building’s striking art deco design.

It’s a welcoming, affable space - a far cry from the bleak metropolis aesthetic the entrance hinted at. What’s more there’s not a single bat to be seen - although there is a large round central bar above which sits an icy effigy of The Penguin.

Welcome to the world of immersive dining as imagined by Wonderland Restaurants, led by former The Fat Duck CEO James Bulmer, and DC Universe owner Warner Bros. Park Row, named after the alley where Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in the Batman story, is a themed restaurant but not as you know it, with Gotham City firmly on the outside and only the traits of the characters that inhabit it being found within.

 

james-bulmer

IF THIS ALL SOUNDS A BIT BATTY THEN THE DESIRED AFFECT HAS BEEN ACHIEVED.​ Two years in the making, Park Row is like no other restaurant to be found on these shores and is the brainchild of Bulmer, a man on a mission to bring theme park theatrics into the stuffy world of restaurants.

Park Row is not just one restaurant either, but a collection of bars and dining spaces, its piece de resistance being The Monarch Theatre, a multi-sensorial restaurant contained in a large silver box that features floor-to-ceiling screens and 360-degree projection mapping that brings visual storytelling to the dining table. Here dishes are not what they seem, riddles need to be decoded and plates levitate, while Gotham protagonists such as Mr Freeze, The Joker and Poison Ivy play their part.

There’s a lot to unpick here, but behind all the theatrics, the technology and the expense the end goal is perfectly simple: to create a fun, memorable experience.

“I love this whole amusement park side of things,” says Bulmer of his new project. “Fun - it’s what restaurants are all about. They are not meant to be serious; they are about sharing food and swapping stories. Great food and drink should be an absolute given, so how do make someone go home and talk about their evening? That’s what we want to do.”

whisky-pw

BULMER’S SINGULAR VISION HAS BEEN THE DRIVING FORCE BEHIND PARK ROW.​ The Wonderland Restaurants founder has been a constant presence in the restaurant since its launch bounding around the main Iceberg Lounge dining room with the kind of childlike excitement that comes with being given a new toy.

The son of a former Michelin Guide editor, when Bulmer's not greeting guests he’s enthusiastically showing off some of the gadgets dotted around the dining room, including a specially designed whisky pourer (pictured) that serves the perfect measure based on weight and a ‘levitating molecule’ machine where a floating drop of cocktail can be directed into a person’s mouth using sound waves.

“I want to give a little bit of The Monarch Theatre in the main room,” he explains. “If you’ve travelled from Manchester and you’re a super fan there are those little bits we’re going to give you even if you haven’t spent £195 in The Monarch. You can come and do the whisky cantilever pour, experience the levitating molecule, have a blue boy (a blue-hued cocktail inspired by the 1989 Batman film that is housed in a framed painting of Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy where the blue drains from his outfit as the cocktail is poured). It’s all those extra little bits.

"For a while I have wanted to take those moments that punctuate someone’s evening and make it special. It’s those little fun moments that make you smile like a child.”

"It’s those little fun moments
that make you smile like a child”

More gadgets are coming, too. The restaurant is soon to take charge of a bust of Shakespeare in which water is poured in the top and wine comes out of the bottom. So where does he get these wonderful toys? Behind the gimmicks there’s a more serious element. The restaurant has teamed up with students at University College London (UCL) to partner with its Academy of Curiosity and Wonder to develop new equipment and also run tests with them. It is about to embark on a 12-month study on whether levitation affects flavour perception using data collected from diners. “Whenever [UCL] does testing it is in small numbers, but here we can do it on a much broader scale.”

Park-Row-interior

SO WHAT POSSESSED SOMEONE TO WANT TO BRING THE COMIC BOOK WORLD TO LIFE IN THE FORM OF A RESTAURANT,​ and in the gigantic building that was once home to Marco Pierre White’s legendary yet-short-lived restaurant and bar Titanic but which has sat vacant since early 2019?

It’s down to a love of storytelling, according to Bulmer, who describes himself as a frustrated writer. The eureka moment came to him while sat in a cocktail bar in Covent Garden, he says. “I ordered a Martini shaken not stirred and for a brief moment I felt like James Bond. Had I seen him walk past I’d have realised I was too short and a bit chubby, but it was at that moment I thought I wanted to create a movie set world.

“Experience was being talked about more and more and those stories are so powerful at how they connect with their fan base and also with diners. Brasserie Zedel (Park Row’s subterranean neighbour) has a wonderful story of making you feel like you’re sat in a Parisian street. There’s some pretty massive stories out there that I’ve been a fan of since I was a child and in the same way that Bond has a way of getting people into that world, Batman and Gotham City also does.”

Bulmer, who had experience working with licensing and film studios when he was head of EMEA for retail and licensing sales at The Walt Disney Company, put a plan together on how he saw he could use food and drink to disrupt entertainment on the high street and then presented it to Warner Bros. “It is not a revolutionary idea to create a branded or themed concept, but I wanted to do it differently. The creative process focuses on sensations. Just because it’s fun it doesn’t mean it can’t also serve word class food and drink.”

Warner Bros was evidently impressed, eventually giving Bulmer carte blanche to write his own version of Gotham City. This is where the lightness and conviviality of the space comes into play. While Park Row is ostensibly a Batman universe-themed restaurant, it’s not one in the Planet Hollywood or Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. mould.

"It’s like The Simpsons - they tell a joke and the dad and
son laugh but for very different reasons.
We have had to do that with the design"

“The Iceberg Lounge is not the dark Gotham City, there are no bats,” says Bulmer. “In our head if Oswald Cobblepot (AKA The Penguin) actually had a restaurant it would be a glamorous place where the power brokers of Gotham went. It wouldn’t have a statue of Batman, but he would have a big statue of himself because he’s a narcissist.”

The impressive art deco location has played a key role in this. Bulmer says he visited the building twice, nine months apart, first when it still contained the red banquettes and wooden dividers of previous tenant Danish steakhouse group MASH, and again when it had been stripped bare.

“What changed in my mind was that if you’re going to build Gotham you need an art deco masterpiece. We saw the room and thought ‘let’s bring it back to its former days’. We didn’t want to open Park Row on a major high street in a box because then you really are Planet Hollywood. We knew the major challenge would be people expecting a black burger with a yellow bat on it and to walk in a see a glass case with a Batman outfit, or even a giant bat signal outside the front. If we didn’t get the venue right, we’d be up against it.”

The creative process means that for all its staging, themed areas - other parts of the space include Pennyworth’s bar that pays homage to the Wayne family’s butler Alfred, Rogues Gallery, which exhibits some of Selina Kyle’s (AKA Catwoman) most famous thefts, and speakeasy Old Gotham - and dramatic entrance there is an underlying subtlety (believe it or not).

So much so in fact that visitors unaware of Park Row’s inspiration might not see the space as anything more than a beautiful art deco restaurant. On the flip side, for those well acquainted with the comics books there are hidden gems to discover, such as owls dotted around the room in reference to The Court of Owls, a secret society that controls Gotham.

Like or loathe the immersive idea, it’s hard to argue that Wonderland haven’t breathed fresh life into a room that might have otherwise sat empty for years and returned it to some of its original splendour.

“It’s that subtlety of the design that allows super fans to feel special. It’s like The Simpsons - they tell a joke and the dad and son laugh but for very different reasons. We have had to do that with the design, it’s a space where fans can peel back layers but if you don’t care about DC hopefully it’s a stunning venue with a bit of science and wonderment thrown in. Warner Bros understood the execution about their brand and that it was not full on in your face Batman.”

monarch-web

THOSE THAT WANT A FULL IN YOUR FACE BATMAN EXPERIENCE HAVE THE MONARCH THEATRE.​ Hidden in a silver-clad box that is surprisingly chameleon like, The Monarch is where Bulmer and team have really pulled out all the stops with a restaurant experience based on that of Ultraviolet by Paul Pairet in Shanghai as well as Sublimotion in Ibiza.

Diners sit around a single 20-cover table, having first encountered a rather creepy fairground attraction Chuckles in the reception room, and are immersed in a three-hour, 11-course meal that blends theatrics, video and highly-styled food for a narrative that runs through the DC Universe and which is ably introduced at the table by head sommelier Milena de Waele.

The meal is split into two ‘acts’, the first being all about darker side of Gotham - greed, ego, obsessional love, fear, chaos – the second about the more complex characters, such as Mr Freeze (“everything he did was to try and save woman he loved”); Poison Ivy (“she was just trying to protect nature”), and Catwoman (“a Robin Hood-type character”). Questions are even asked about Batman himself as a protagonist during the meal. “A man who scales the rooftops in the darkness using fear and violence do good, is he truly a goodie?” ask Bulmer.

Dishes are the creation of Karl O’Dell, former head chef at Texture, and include a ‘poisonous’ mushroom made from a parfait; a single bite of crab, chilli and kafir lime presented on Catwoman’s hand; smoked eel, yuzu and pork rib served on an icy plate; and black cod and octopus that comes with a syringe full of miso. The hero dish, linked to Bruce Wayne, is a black creation of Black Angus steak, truffle ‘rock’ potato and smoked onion, with the meal ending on food presented on levitating plates, a striking illusion created using magnets.

"There was never any talk about creating an
18-month pop-up Batman restaurant but a
business that can be here in 10 years
and still feel relevant"

While the concept is not unique, Bulmer is confident that most visitors to Park Row will not have experienced it in Shanghai or Ibiza, as neither has Bulmer and his team. This might put them at a disadvantage, but he says the challenge is successfully communicating the technology and the story. “People don’t know who we are or what dining in a box is going to be like - nor did we until about a month ago. We need to get the communication right.”

Food in the Iceberg Lounge, overseen by former Savoy Grill head chef Kim Woodward, is more straightforward. Seafood is a significant part of the offer, with oysters (raw, baked and fried) on the menu as well as caviar; lobster thermidor; and seafood cocktail, while other brasserie-style dishes include the Big Belly Burger; a truffle-glazed whole chicken; steak tartare; and an extravagant peppercorn crusted 28-day aged USDA chateaubriand. There are some quirks though, including nitro ice cream, nitro popcorn and an edible balloon.

Both Woodward and O’Dell were not part of the original line up ​when Park Row was announced two years ago, with Mark Garston, former head of central development at The Fat Duck; and with Mike Bagale, former executive chef of three Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago, creative director, in the frame. The pandemic has been partly responsible for the change in personnel, with some leaving the country and others unable to travel. O’Dell is not a recent appointment, however, having been brought in to run Park Row’s at-home meal kits last summer before taking on The Monarch.

Cod-and-Octopus-web

 

IN ANY OTHER YEAR, A PROJECT SUCH AS PARK ROW MIGHT FEEL WONDERFULLY EXTRAVAGANT. BUT OPENING SUCH A VENTURE IN A PANDEMIC MIGHT BE VIEWED AS MORE FOLLY THAN FABULOUS. ​Park Row found itself in the eye of the Coronavirus storm sitting on a vast site with costly ambitions. Was there ever a point when Bulmer thought that maybe this was not the right thing to be doing?

“We’ve been very fortunate and had some very good early-stage investors who share our vision. I wouldn’t have blamed them for getting cold feet, but we’ve known where we want to go and what to deliver. We made some petty bold promises two years ago and we had to deliver on those.”

He admits to there being some “squeaky bum moments” but describes landlord The Crown Estate as having been brilliant. “People have been asking whether landlords will play a big role in the industry going forwards and the answer is yes. Some restaurants haven’t spoken to their landlords for 12 months, but thankfully The Crown understood you’ve got to sit down and understand the business plan and work with the operator. There was never any talk about creating an 18-month pop-up Batman restaurant but a business that can be here in 10 years and still feel relevant - one that’s driven by food, drink and service.

“What could have occurred is we went into lockdown and re-evaluated the entire project. How do we save money? The first thing would be to get rid of the halo concept [The Monarch Theatre], but because we had a partnership, and the investors understood the vision, we were able to deliver on what we set out to do.”

"The consumer can get anything they want at home
now so if they are going to go out, they
need something unique and memorable"

The venue costs are also manageable, Bulmer insists. Following the departure of MASH, the site had a multi-million premium attached to it, but this had steadily dropped the longer it remained vacant and was acquired by Wonderland at nil premium.

Bulmer also describes the rent as “responsible”. “It’s a responsible spend on the CapEx and rent because it’s a business, it has to work. We have an amazing partner in Warner Bros but at the end of the day we have to wash our own face, no one’s going to save us if we don’t deliver. We have created a strong partnership with The Crown, so they are hopefully not having to look for someone new in 18 months - they don’t want to have to go through this process again.”

What of the timing? Opening a venue such as this during a pandemic could be seen as misjudging the mood. But, by contrast, it could also be seen as a welcome diversion to all the struggles people have faced these past 18 months. Unsurprisingly, Bulmer sits in the latter camp.

“I’ve always credited Heston (with whom he worked when CEO at The Fat Duck group) teaching that you can execute wonderful technical food, but you can coat it with a brilliant story. I think that’s going to be way more relevant coming out of the pandemic. The consumer can get anything they want at home now so if they are going to go out, they need something unique and memorable, a shared experience that will last for a long time. I think that makes us more relevant than we were 18 months ago.”

 

Pr-food

A FEW WEEKS IN AND TWEAKS HAVE ALREADY BEEN MADE. PARK ROW MIGHT NOT YET BE THE FINISHED ARTICLE BUT IT’S ON ITS WAY.​ The original idea was to have three ‘shows’ a day at The Monarch, at 12pm, 6pm and 9pm but this has been reduced to just one at lunch and one at dinner to not put too much stress on the team. The team is also about to install choreographed strobe lighting in The Monarch to light up the dishes that at present can be quite hard to see.

“The reason we opened in August was to overcome any teething problems. When they opened Jurassic Park, the dinosaurs ate the customers,”

Some bar areas, including Old Gotham are also yet to open, with next month looking likely for when they throw open their doors. “The reality is that after work drinkers at the moment aren’t here and if they are, they want to go and stand outside a pub. I’m hoping when September comes they will want to drink indoors.”

The venue has also been created so that it can evolve over time. Upcoming Warner Bros films including Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, The Flash and The Batman will likely spawn new gadgets and dishes, with Park Row the ideal venue to hold parties around their launch.

The various elements of The Monarch can also be changed. Every video chapter fades to black meaning that content can be switched out and dishes can also change based on existing and new themes. “To change the experience, we don’t need to do a wholesale change, although in reality we probably will in 18 months’ time. We are not expecting people to come back three times a month, but we do want them to come back in a year’s time and when they do there’s a different story, different food and drinks.”

And who are these people visiting Park Row? With much global travel still banned and fewer tourists the restaurant cannot just rely on long-haul visitors.

“I use Sketch as a fantastic example and the breakdown of their customer base - that’s what we want. American tourists, people from the Far East and Asia, but also a solid base of UK customers. We’ve got to be able to do that and get the Mayfair set in. Super fans are important and will sense check if we’ve got our stories right. They will spend if they think it’s worth it and so are the best litmus test, but on their own they are not a big enough.”

If Park Row is a success Bulmer already has his sights on more projects - the creative spark ignited in him now hard to put out. “We could go bigger next time,” he enthuses. “I’m excited about where we could go if we get the opportunity to do it again. Do I have the energy? Yes. The rights? Yes. The only one place you can tell a DC story in the UK is London, but we could go around the world and choose a different story. Maybe more Superman focused. In a different building we could really create Krypton but without it being a theme park. But, of course, the focus is on making sure this works first.”

Short term there are still more tricks up Bulmer’s sleeve to ensure Park Row succeeds in its caped crusade. And nothing seems to be off limits. That giant bat signal idea that he poo-pooed earlier? “That still could be quite cool,” he muses. Next time you’re in Soho don’t forget to look up, just in case.

 

Related topics: Business Profile, Restaurant

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