More bang for your buck

Providing the authentic Asian streetfood dining experience, a new food hall in north London was also an intriguing dish for the architects to try, as Roseanne Field reports

Opening a new restaurant in London is never an easy task, particularly given the vast number of competitors. But when it’s the biggest Asian food hall in the capital, in the right area, and in a space conceived by leading architectural practices, worrying about the competition isn’t likely to be such a problem.

Bang Bang Oriental Foodhall, which takes its name from the popular Chinese dish Bang Bang Chicken, is situated on the major thoroughfare of Edgware Road in Colindale, north London, an area of rich ethnic diversity. It replaces Oriental City, which like Bang Bang Oriental provided a food market and a variety of eateries, as well as a shopping complex. Food halls, combining varied and vibrant eating opportunities and retail, have been popping up all over the city in recent years – a cost- effective solution for both tenants pooling rents, and customers.

Despite its popularity, Oriental City experienced financial struggles and was sold in the late 1990s after its owners declared bankruptcy. It was subsequently sold again in 2006 to a developer who planned to demolish it and build a housing development, school and DIY store on the site, but this was met with strong protest from both tenants of the building and the local east Asian community.

“The whole food hall concept was very popular,” says Richard Blandy, director at Stiff + Trevillion, the architects for the new eatery’s interiors.

However despite the protestors’ best efforts, the local authority was concerned over health issues and Oriental City remained open for only one more year before it was closed in 2008.

There was much debate about what would replace the building. The UK’s financial crisis meant the owner’s plans were no longer viable and finding a buyer would be difficult. Meanwhile, continued but fruitless protests occurred about the building’s abandoned state.

Eventually, in 2013, planning permission was granted for a full redevelopment of the site to include a Morrisons supermarket, flats and, in order to retain the history of the site, an appropriately oriental food hall. It also stipulated that an Asian supermarket would be included, in order to allow the food hall customers to purchase the ingredients they were consuming. In 2014, the building was demolished and construction of the replacement development, designed by Sheppard Robson, began.

The architects designed the shell of each unit in the overall development, and that the interior would be taken care of by each respective tenant and their chosen architect or designer, in this case Stiff + Trevillion.

“They’d put in a lift and the concrete staircase, but otherwise it was the original slab, blockwork walls,” Blandy explains. “They had put it in all the glazing systems and the roof. So it was ready to fit out but it was a blank canvas.”

The new food hall is owned by Royal China Group, who were familiar with Stiff + Trevillion’s work.

“We were approached by them, having worked with them for years,” says Blandy.

The opening of Bang Bang in July last year was a big event in Colindale, with Chinese dragon dancers performing and the local mayor and MP in attendance. With the area having been without its much- loved food hall for nine long years, its replacement was hungrily awaited.

Dining with a difference
Although Stiff + Trevillion have worked on many restaurants before, they’d never done a project quite like Bang Bang, and it was its unusual nature that was so appealing to the practice. “It was really exciting,” Blandy says.

Stiff + Trevillion weren’t the only ones new to the food hall concept however – although they own a lot of restaurants in the UK and China, the client had also never worked on one.

“It was new to them but it’s very common in east Asian countries, particularly China,” explains Blandy. “Because it was their first venture into this they had no preconceived ideas. We were doing a lot of research together.”

Although the food hall initiative is somewhat recognisable from the type of eating experience on offer in shopping centres, Bang Bang – which translates as ‘good good’ in Mandarin – takes this to a higher level.

“Food halls in big shopping centres would be the usual suspects and where you sat was very much demarcated by particular restaurants,” says Blandy.

“This is much more communal, you can sit wherever you like and pick up food from different kiosks. It’s much freer.”

Blandy is a firm believer that food halls are set to become increasingly popular around the world, with a wide range of consumers looking for something different.

“I think people are very adventurous now, and they really want quality and a good price, but not everybody wants to eat the same thing,” he says. “I think it’s a big market – we’re definitely seeing more people looking at that sector.”

The exterior of the warehouse-style building features large diagrid cladding and glazing, designed by Sheppard Robson to echo the slanting roof – a much more contemporary aesthetic than its somewhat- dated predecessor Oriental City.

The ground floor includes Royal China Group’s Golden Dragon restaurant, and the food hall with multiple retailers is on the first floor, which then leads up to a mezzanine level.

The 2,000 m2 food hall has a total of 27 different small ‘restaurants’ located in kiosks ranged along the walls, surrounding a central area of tables and chairs. There’s a variety of seating, for a diner capacity of 450. While Chinese food dominates the kiosks, the offerings extend from Japanese through to Indian. “It’s pretty broad,” Blandy says. The largest kiosks are just over 20 m2, while the smallest are around 8 m2.

The Colindale area has an ethnically diverse community including 4 per cent Chinese residents. However, the appeal of the food hall has a wide reach.

“Every nationality comes,” says Blandy. “Many people have travelled a good deal and they know genuine Thai, Indian, Chinese food, so it’s not new to them.”

The Golden Dragon restaurant on the ground floor offers a “slightly more formal” experience. Royal China Group already operates a restaurant by the same name
in Soho, which is very well known for its dim sum, especially among the Chinese community. Blandy explains that among the group’s restaurants, Golden Dragon sits in the mid range. The restaurant can seat 200+ people, but was also designed to accommodate weddings with 300+ guests, as per the client’s brief.

The first floor mezzanine was added to comply with a planning requirement for community space, and there’s a room and a dance studio space which the community can rent out. The performers of regular dragon dances held in the food hall also use the rehearsal space, and there are plans to use further rooms on this level for therapies such as Chinese medicine and reflexology.

East Asian-inspired
The designs for both the food hall and Golden Dragon were heavily influenced by traditional Far East architecture and design. “We did a timber-framed frontage to all the units that ties the entire facade together and that was influenced by Chinese and Japanese timber construction,” explains Blandy. They used natural timber, expressed bolt joints and dark-stained timber.

“When we did the initial mood board there were conceptual images of that type of construction in their houses and buildings and temples. So we’ve taken that forward and used that to influence the way we’ve constructed the shells to the kiosks.”

The construction of the kiosk shells formed an important part of Stiff + Trevillion’s work, as they wanted to minimise what each food retailer had to
do in order to get up and running.

“We’d put in the shop front, the front counter, the fascia, the side walls and the services, so they just had to put in the cooking equipment and a bit of lighting,” Blandy explains. “We didn’t want them to have too much influence on the front so the whole design was unified. Otherwise within no time at all we wouldn’t know what it was going to look like, it could look chaotic.” The only other element each tenant was responsible for was the signage.

The practice used a lot of black granite and polished brass throughout, again echoing the materials used in East Asian construction and interior design.

“We’ve also used black and red fabric between some of the battens to conceal acoustic panels, but these are very much Asian colours,” says Blandy. “Particularly in Chinese and Japanese cultures, there’s a lot of red and black in their traditional architecture.” The colour palette was one of the most important aspects to the client – specifically they wanted to see black, gold and red.

Contrary to the other choices made, one material deliberately chosen because it isn’t typical of Asian design is polished concrete.

“We didn’t want to do something that was too much of a pastiche,” explains Blandy. “We wanted it to look modern, but with hints of the history of Asian design. It’s got a feeling of the Far East.”

Another influencing factor was the client’s request that clean, robust materials were utilised in order to keep maintenance costs to a minimum.

As well as the building elements, Stiff + Trevillion directly appointed graphic design firm The Plant to take care of the project’s graphic elements. They came up with the name Bang Bang and also did the logo, which in turn influenced the way Stiff + Trevillion specified the tiles. Blandy believes this “very important” collaboration was key to the project’s success.

The authentic street food experience has been delivered, says Blandy:

“That comes from the kiosks, by the very nature that you stroll around among the tables and in walkways to get everything.”

The Chinese-themed interior of the Golden Dragon restaurant includes a purpose-made carpet designed by textile designer Govindia Hemphill. One wall features 3 m x 1 m Chinese lacquered panels – brought over from China by the client – that can be folded back to reveal a large dragon. “The idea was that you could change the atmosphere in the room,” Blandy says. Confident in the restaurant’s popularity, the client “definitely wanted it to be suitable for big events.”

Service at scale

Of course, working on a project of this scale doesn’t come without its challenges. “The biggest problem is the number of outlets and the kitchen extract related

to it – it’s so huge,” Blandy explains. “It’s 1,200mx2m–it’sbigenoughthatyou could walk down it – and that has to be concealed so that the public aren’t really aware of it. The servicing of something like this is very complicated.”

The food hall comprising 27 kiosks, each with its own tenant, also proved somewhat difficult. “Fitting out something on that scale is relatively complicated,” says Blandy. “We had lots of different operators coming in wanting to install their kitchen and each had their own contractor. As you can imagine, it gets quite tricky!”

Sustainability features include a system that collects all wet waste from each kiosk via a hopper, which dispenses it into a large 5 m x 3 m tank. “It’s then pumped into a lorry and taken away to an anaerobic digester and turned into electricity,” explains Blandy. “It means there’s not huge amounts of wet waste creating smells onsite, making the whole place a lot cleaner.”

Bang Bang Oriental also benefits from the huge amount of refrigeration required by the adjacent Morrisons (in fact located within the same building):

“The heat is reclaimed and can be used for hot water,” Blandy says. This makes a big difference to the building’s energy usage, given the huge amount of washing up produced.

While Oriental City was extremely popular, the success of the food hall has surpassed expectations, and Blandy certainly believes it offers a model for the food industry. In particular he sees it as a great platform for launching new restaurants. “If someone decides to set up and open a restaurant, it’s a huge investment, without properly knowing if it works,” he remarks. “With a small kiosk they have a proper chance to test it out. I think the future is heading that way.”