Chances are that most Londoners have either walked past RIBA, or at least passed close by at least a dozen times. Located a stone's throw from Great Portland Street and Regent's Park stations, and just ten minutes from Oxford Circus, its central London location makes it a prime venue for meetings, catch-ups, conferences and evening dos.
The home of the Royal Institute of British Architects - most of the regular visitors to the RIBA venue are its members - the Art Deco building boasts the largest library of architecture books in Europe. But you don't have to be a budding Wren or Loos to visit. RIBA is a public building and features a cafe by the entrance and a restaurant on the first floor for passers-by to grab a coffee or have a chat. Lunch times only, for now at least. The building also has free guest wi-fi for frantic emailers looking for a spot to hit 'send'.
And for those looking for a more formal setting for a meeting or corporate get-together, there's a whole smorgasbord of rooms to choose from - 23 all together. RIBA is a six-storey mega-mansion of a building, with three terraces, two huge entertaining rooms, a conference hall in the penthouse (with a sneaky smoking balcony and fabulous view of London), and a host of quirky and modern rooms for dinners or meetings. Uniquely, every room in RIBA has the benefit of natural light, so whichever space you decide on, you won't risk giving guests the dreaded 'halogen light fatigue'.
The smaller rooms range from grey, ultra-modern spaces that could have been modelled on the Death Star's intimate war chambers, to the unforgettable Aston Webb room on the second floor. Entirely leather-lined, it's Wall Street meets S&M playroom for naughty masters of the universe everywhere (pictured at the top). For anyone looking for a courtroom feel, the Council Chamber is all pomp and ceremony, with a door at each end so that the 'aye's and 'nay's never have to cross paths as they leave the room. It's worth noting, any conference bookers reading, that the whole of the fifth floor is a kind of business suite - you can take the whole thing for a conference with the surrounding break-out rooms.
But the jewels in the crown are undoubtedly the Florence Hall on the first floor (which doubles up as the restaurant) and the Jarvis Suite in the basement. While licensing laws mean that RIBA has to switch off all music in the upstairs rooms before midnight, those in the bowels of the building can party the night away without fear of reprisal. As for the Florence (pictured left), it's a light, airy room, packed with architectural details in the stone carvings and intricate woodwork. Nicole Farhi has hosted three of her fashion shows here.
On the last Tuesday of every month, RIBA opens late (till 10pm) to host a range of free talks and guided tours around the building. It is also the only time that the restaurant is open for dinner. The menu is simply 'modern British' but also changes frequently to use the best of seasonal produce. At £19.50 for two courses or £23.50 for three, we were astounded at how empty the place was.
To start, MT and guest (events lecturer Emma Abson) had 'Cannelloni of Yorshire venison with comsomme jelly, parsnips and kale' (pictured left) and 'Black truffle potatoes with pickled carrots and brussel sprouts petals' (pictured right). Sounds impressive? Well it looked even more so.
The chef must be a frustrated architect himself, because the presentation of each course was incredible. It tasted pretty good too, with Abson commenting, 'I have eaten in every five-star restaurant in London and this is one of the most beautiful and imaginative vegetarian starters I have ever been served.'
MT, a monstrous carnivore, hoovered up the venison in ten seconds flat. Too much sage cream, perhaps, but the taste was delightful. As was the design of the plate, with the tidal wave of liquid threatening to topple the delicate trees and monolithic venison buildings.
On to the mains. Abson was less impressed with her 'Caramelised shallot tatin with white velvet cheese' (pictured below left): 'It looks like another starter,' she complained. But the tastes were all individually spot on (apart from a little grizzling over the sweetness of the caramelised tart). I would have happily plopped that dollop of white velvet cheese on a cone and headed off into the sunset.
The 'Smoked Gressingham duck breast, confit croquette, braised beef, and parsnips with a parsley cream' (below right) - yes, that was all on ONE plate, were all delicious, but didn't really go together. One had to attack one building at a time like some kind of OCD Godzilla.
Both MT and guest did however both agree that the reason we were so critical was because it looked so damn good. Michelin star, no less. So, much like you always grill the better interview candidates to test their mettle, and let the rubbish ones slink off without too much pushing, we debated the merits of each and every element of the meal.
But the visual piece de resistance was without a doubt the pudding. A sugar-coated construction site, complete with icing-dusted chocolate gravel (below left), called 'Coffee mousse, chocolate cannelloni , espresso cake and vanilla ice cream' on the menu. At this point, we had to admit that we were truly in the presence of greatness.
This was truly a fantastic find. Wonderful surroundings, great, imaginative food, a live jazz band on the first floor, and a truly edutaining exhibition upstairs - did I mention the exhibition? MT will definitely be heading back with a few pals one Last Tuesday not too long from now.
For the full venue brochure, download the PDF at the top of the page. And keep your eyes open for a few upcoming offers this month as RIBA gears up for Christmas.
And remember that RIBA, despite its name, isn't just for architects...
Address: 66 Portland Place, London, W1B 1AD