Walking into Polpetto, Russell Norman’s latest Soho eaterie, it’s hard to imagine that just a few months ago the space was a soulless concrete box. Today, with its genteel net curtains, duck egg blue distressed plaster walls and scuffed wooden floors, it looks and feels like an authentic Venetian bàcaro - the traditional type of bar that can be found all over Venice serving small plates of food with wine.
If you’ve been watching Norman’s BBC2 series, The Restaurant Man, where he advises amateurs how to set up restaurants, you’ll know he’s as passionate about getting the look right as he is about serving good food. Since he made hanging a row of bare light bulbs a trend that is now ubiquitous, he has had to move on, and he has gone in a rather surprising direction.
POLPETTO: HOW THEY DID IT
“Venice was the starting point. It is a city of outstanding beauty that is crumbling. You can touch the buildings and feel them falling to dust. I wanted that feeling of glorious decrepitude, which is what takes my breath away each time I go there,” he says.
Norman commissioned special effects plasterers to create a series of distressed finishes, including layering scraps of lace into the surface for a feminine touch and buffing it to give it a sheen. They added Farrow & Ball’s Pale Powder into the mix, and finished up with streaky rust marks under the lights to look like watermark damage.
Adding to the intimate atmosphere is the low, pressed tin-tiled ceiling based on tiles used in 19th-century New York as fireproofing. It gives the place a faint saloon bar atmosphere and Norman, who buys them in the US, gets them treated here by metal worker Bela Pasztor, who dons a rubber suit to dip them in caustic acid to get that rusted, distressed finish.
Could net curtains like the ones Granny used to twitch be about to trend? If Norman is using them, the answer is probably yes.
“I’m continuing the feminine, tongue-in-cheek theme and I don’t think net curtains are used enough. There are some really nice patterns out there and I’m not ashamed to say I got these at Rolls & Rems in Lewisham, where you have to fight the OAPS for the best pieces,” he says.
Norman fixed shaded wall lights all the way down the walls for uniform, clear light. For softer, more romantic lighting above the bar, he draped white linen napkins over simple coolie shades. In the basement, he put up enamel shades but wanted them to look vintage so took a hammer and lightly bashed them first.
Velvet door curtains
Dramatic yet practical, hanging heavy velvet curtains round the front door creates a theatrical entrance and keeps out the draught. “I love the drama of it and it’s often used in Paris and New York but never in London — I don’t know why,” he says.
The flooring, the sides of the bar and some of the table tops are all made from little maple planks that have been reclaimed from Chelsea Barracks. Norman bought them from DDS Demolition, a timber yard near Monkton in Margate.
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