Of all the strange restaurant concepts London has seen, Park Row is arguably the boldest. In its five bars and restaurants, currently under construction three floors below Soho’s Brewer Street, restaurateur James Bulmer plans to marry high-end drinking and dining with the atmosphere of Batman’s Gotham City.
Four of the five spaces take indirect inspiration from Batman characters. The fifth, the 20-seat Monarch Theatre private dining room, offers a £195, 11-course tasting menu within a multi-sensory immersive experience that obliquely references the heroes and villains of the wider DC (Detective Comics) Universe. But Superman, Joker, Wonder Woman, Bruce Wayne, his alter ego and all of the rest are never named or seen. They’re wholly absent, Batman.
“The subtlety of how we’re doing it is the challenge,” says Bulmer, an energetic and likeable 40-year-old who ran his own PR firm before stints working for Disney and with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck. His father, Derek, now a business partner, ran the Michelin Guide for decades. “Superfans have to feel special because they notice things others don’t,” he continues, “but we also have to satisfy private equity guys from Mayfair who don’t care about the DC universe but want world-class food, beautiful design, and storytelling through the playfulness of food and drink.” In other words — Batman with burgers this ain’t.
There’s a “no cosplay” rule: if you come dressed as the Flash, you’re not getting in. “It should feel like you are walking into a movie set,” says Bulmer — and it’s a set where you, the food and drink, are the stars, not some tired waitress dressed as Harley Quinn.
So comic nerds like me and Standard cartoonist Christian Adams may know that it was outside Gotham’s Monarch Theatre that Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot, prompting his bat-themed vigilantism. Or that one bar, Pennyworth’s, is named after Wayne’s butler Alfred and another, The Iceberg Lounge, after the casino opened by super-villain Penguin when he sought to go straight.
Other rooms are more oblique. The Rogue’s Gallery, riffing on Catwoman’s career as a burglar, contains forgeries of six famous paintings stolen — in real life, this is — but never recovered. There should have been another but “unbelievably, the seventh, a Picasso, was found last month”. Entertainingly enough, Bulmer refuses to name the forger. The late-night Old Gotham Lounge is meant to look “like the Joker’s grandma’s living room”, but there’s also stuff throughout Park Row to impress the high rollers: a cantilevered whisky pouring arm; a machine that ultrasonically levitates a molecule of gin-and-tonic; a cinematic soundtrack as you descend the stairs from street level; and a “mist light door” that ushers you into the magnificent space.
Park Row occupies the ballroom of what was once London’s largest hotel, the Regent Palace. In the Nineties this vast chamber was home to Marco Pierre White’s doomed flagship, Titanic. Its Grade II-listed panelling and vast glass light fittings have been offset with beautiful new flooring, banquettes and counters, and a small stage for live performances. Here there are more roundabout references to the DC world — you’d have to be a real nerd to realise that the gold curtain around the stage is inspired by DC’s 2016 dud movie, Suicide Squad.
The Monarch, meanwhile, is a free-standing box near the kitchens, clad in chrome, its inner walls and ceilings made up of screens, its centrepiece a table packed with heat sensors, magnets and jets to emit vapour. “I needed to be able to control the sensory environment, what’s on screen, the sounds, smells, what’s on the plate,” says Bulmer.
“There’s nothing like it in the UK, although it’s similar to Sublimotion in Ibiza,” he adds, a nod to Paco Roncero’s radical 12-seater, 20-course place that’s reportedly the most expensive restaurant in the world.
In the Monarch, a narrator will guide groups of up to 20 on a sensory and gastronomic journey through the “history of heroism” with themes like fear, hope, love, truth and greed reflected in executive chef Karl O’Dell’s 11 courses. There’s a medallion of scallop, oyster, caviar and white chocolate topped with gold leaf; a black-on-black beef fillet with truffle potato; a toadstool made out of mushroom parfait; an edible pearl.
The theatricality of the food owes much to the molecular gastronomy and “a-ha” transformations perpetrated at the Fat Duck, and Bulmer has enlisted one of his and Heston Blumenthal’s regular collaborators, illusionist Chris Cox, to stud the experience with tricks.
O’Dell, meanwhile, previously worked at Michelin-starred Texture, while other senior staff have been recruited from the Savoy, Annabel’s and the Ivy, to signal that this is serious foodie business, not a gimmicky theme park. Bulmer won’t say how many millions Park Row cost to set up, but the Monarch table alone cost more than £100,000.
Bulmer, “a huge fan of DC, Marvel, Roald Dahl” wooed execs of DC’s parent company Warner Bros by taking them to the Fat Duck, where he was CEO from 2017-18. This is the first such licensing venture for Warners. If it’s a success, it opens up the possibility of dining concepts across the world based not only around other DC characters, but also other properties from WB’s vast back catalogue. But Bulmer says the ultimate aim for his company, Wonderland, is to “allow people to reach into their screens and pull out their favourite food and drinks from movies or TV”.
Whoa, hold on. First, the British public have to be convinced to enjoy entertainment and dinner simultaneously, especially at a premium price when they’re only just emerging from you-know-what. Bulmer argues that since he first had the idea, Secret Cinema and other immersive theatre have come on leaps and bounds; that Blumenthal and others have already blended food and storytelling; and that after months of lockdown people are desperate for novelty and expect more for their buck than “a burger and chips for £25”. Maybe he’s right. The nearby Windmill Theatre is planning something similar, melding cabaret, food and drink; and Brasserie Zedel has a cabaret space. If Bulmer manages to sell Gotham-themed meals to both DC superfans and Mayfair hedge funders, I’ll believe a concept can fly.
77 Brewer St, W1, parkrowlondon.co.uk
Dining with the Dark Knight
Although a fan of Batman in most of his incarnations (early comics, Dark Knight reinvention, screen outings from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Christian Bale – Ben Affleck, not so much) I wasn’t sure he was right for a restaurant concept. But Park Row is a darkly cool space, the apparently free-floating spiral staircase easing you down into a den of stylish iniquity.
Having different zones in a classic room makes it feel a bit like the Ned. The food and the technical wizardry in the Monarch are both hugely impressive (though we didn’t get the full experience on our early visit) with the black-on-black beef a standout. The evocation of themes and motifs from DC stories without explicit reference to characters is deftly done. Personally, when it comes to dinner and a show, I prefer them one after the other, not concurrently. But I’d happily knock back a cocktail or go for a non-immersive meal at Pennyworth’s or the Iceberg Lounge, imagining, however briefly, that I’m Bruce Wayne. Nick Curtis
There’s no shame in revelling in your inner nerd here
If there’s one thing unashamed comic enthusiasts like me love, it’s Easter Eggs. Those miniscule, but sometimes narratively important, references hidden away in the main story. The point of Easter Eggs is that only hard core fans will get their relevance.
Park Row gives us these in spades, with a sprawling underground space that actually has no “story” – only Easter Eggs. There is no Batman, no Penguin, no Harley Quinn. Instead, there nods and winks to the comic books and the many movies all over the place. From the name of the place (a street intrinsic to why Bruce Wayne became Batman), to the Blue Boy painting (hello, Jack Nicholson’s Joker), to Suicide Squad’s beaded, curtained stage (“You want me? I’m all yours”…)
There’s no shame in revelling in your inner nerd here; it’s DC comics’ fan heaven. Christian Adams