LONDON — Believe it or not, a bowl of clam chowder or a steak-and-cheese sandwich with onions is still considered exotic in a lot of locales — this city included. That’s one reason Carlos Almada conceived Automat, an American-style diner in Mayfair that drew an A-list crowd even before it officially opened last month.
Automat hosted the post-premiere party for “Sin City” and a birthday bash for Alexander McQueen, and among the early diners were Almada’s buddies London record producer Nellee Hooper and aristos Lucas White and Eddie Spencer Churchill.
Part diner, part New York deli and part brasserie, Automat is just what London was missing, Almada says (at least for now; there have been numerous other attempts over the years to open delis or diners in London). “I wanted a place where people could eat anytime — like 10:30 or 11 at night — which is a problem in this town,” says the Buenos Aires-born restaurateur.
“I didn’t want there to be any etiquette. I want people to come in here after a party and have a coffee in their black tie, and be sitting next to guys from a band who may be having their dinner,” he says. “I wanted to give it a very relaxed New York vibe.”
Automat is just the beginning for Almada. Later this year, he will open a more formal restaurant and bar on the floor below, and he’s planning to create a private members’ club and event space in the basement. When it’s completed, the entire building, which once was a Bentley dealership, will be one of London’s largest restaurant and party venues, spanning a total of 21,500 square feet. The building is so large, it has entrances on Dover Street and the next street over, Berkeley Street.
Though Automat is Almada’s first London venture, he’s no stranger to the restaurant business. An architect whose specialty is art direction and set design, Almada opened his first restaurant in Buenos Aires in the Seventies when he was still an architecture student.
After moving to New York in 1983, he worked on set designs for Joseph Papp and a variety of commercial real estate projects. In the late Eighties, he opened MK in Manhattan, and later The Cocoa, Magenta Marquez, The Building and lastly, Man Ray, which closed in 2003.
This time out, Almada wanted an authentic feel, and studied scores of American diners before creating Automat. The first room feels like a Fifties soda fountain counter, with white tile walls and black-and-white mosaic floors; the next is styled as an upscale lunch wagon, with dark green booths, Thirties desk lamps and molasses-colored pine walls, and the main room is more like a brasserie, with a big aluminum bar, tables and banquettes, bathed in sunlight from the skylight ceiling.
Almada is staying true to his all-American theme with plans for a combined coffee bar, soda fountain and newspaper stall in the front of the restaurant. He says the diner concept was an obvious one for him. “There’s such an affinity between London and New York, and people are going back and forth all the time. This way, they can always feel at home.”