February 2004
SO.UK SO.HO . Not just for footballers' wives

If you couldn't get into Teatro's, the West End club created by ex star footballer Lee Chapman and his wife the actress Leslie Ash, the good news is that you still can't. With membership up in the £500 bracket the assorted celebs and stars don't want your sort hanging around the place, thank you very much.

With the attached restaurant converted from French fine dining into SO.UK SO.HO and with a policy of admitting anyone into the restaurant with the cash to spare and a desire to do more than just eat, things have changed. Lee invited us to meet him in the holy of holies that is the Teatro club proper to talk about the changes that have taken place.

The restaurant and club are in fact housed side by side in what was once a multi-storey car park. A leg-stretching climb up the stairs, past Buddhas, Islamy things and other hints of the mystic East (End) brings me to the desk where a female member of staff exudes cool while 'swiping' me into the club. This being mid-morning, the place is empty but for a barman and some geezers no doubt cutting an important deal. A few minutes wait and Lee sweeps in.

He's a tall bloke, brushing the low ceiling. And despite being a week older than me, looks ten years younger. All that footballing (he retired eight years ago), must keep you well fit. He had something of a reputation as a hard man during his footballer years and while he is gently spoken and unfailingly polite, there is still a sense that you wouldn't want to mess with him. So I gingerly asked him what went wrong with Teatro's restaurant and what provoked the SO.UK conversion?

'Basically the market fell off at the fine dining end of the market dramatically a couple of years ago,' he explains. 'We stuck with it for a while but then we decided that it wasn't working anymore. ' He gestures around at the plush leather chairs 'The members' club, where we are now, always did well but we felt we needed to change the restaurant style to be more what people wanted.' Which was? 'More relaxed, more informal, not structured around a three course meal. We have candles and incense burning at night to have that relaxed feel about it, almost like you're on holiday.'

I suggest that the food as well as the decoration in SO.UK is, as you might expect, North African influenced but Lee is not so sure. ' Well it's not really, ' he says after a pause to think. 'It's a bit of everything really, elements of Tunisian and Moroccan but stuff from farther east too. It's anything exotic to take people away from the everyday.' And of course this sort of food suits SO.UK 's dining style, which is to sprawl comfortably and eat off large plates. 'Yep,' agrees Lee. 'It's banquette seating, low tables, no formality, no white table clothes you can pick and choose whatever you want, and there's no structure.'

We're now in the restaurant proper and Lee indicates the seating. 'Here you can eat as a group and the banquettes lend themselves to be being rearranged so that you can create nice little groups of friends, or get more intimate as a twosome. And then you can simply rearrange the seating after eating to make it easier to get back and forth to the dance floor'. It's certainly an interesting space, the seats being just low enough to be relaxed but, as Lee says, 'Not so low you're trying to eat while lying flat on your back.' The whole restaurant was a costly refurb job. Lee is coy about how much 'It cost enough', is all he's prepared to say. It looks like money well spent, though.

And how did the members react to the restaurant changes? 'They were fine about it.' he says. 'The menu in the club has also changed, it's now the same as in the restaurant and they love it. To be honest our members didn't use the fine dining restaurant that much anyway it wasn't a fit with their lifestyle.'

'Now we have a lot more members going next door especially, as I said, when around 10:30 each evening the restaurant turns more into a lounge club. A DJ comes on and you can stay the whole evening, you don't have to go anywhere else, There's dancing and a lot of the members drift next door if they feel like it - but if they want to be chilled out they stay in here.'

Did the success of the first SO.UK in Clapham encourage this change of direction? 'Oh yes, ' he agrees. 'That's been doing incredibly well, and been going about three years now.' And is it true it used to be your house? Lee laughs at this. 'No, no, Lesley's parents used to live in the flat above and they used to run the downstairs as a paint and wallpaper shop. It wasn't working and so we turned it into this incredibly successful bar.'

So Clapham can also support the SO.UK style? 'Oh yes, 'he insists, 'Clapham's got a great little vibe going with lots of good bars and restaurants. When we started just over three years ago there wasn't much there but we've been around long enough to see a big change. A lot of people don't go into the West End now, its such a big hassle getting in and out.' He suddenly considers this might not be the best way of filling up SO.UK SO.HO and quickly adds with a smile, 'But for those that DO come in we have something even better.'

He certainly has. SO.UK SO.HO is an oasis away from the manic streets. Come for the food, stay for the DJ.