Gingerline: The Restaurant That's Part Willy Wonka, Part W. Heath Robinson

By Londonist Last edited 79 months ago
Gingerline: The Restaurant That's Part Willy Wonka, Part W. Heath Robinson
The Secret Island, a previous Gingerline experience

When Gingerline first hit London’s pop-up dining scene in August 2010, it took the creative possibilities of the form to a whole new level.

Previously, if you wanted an eccentric, aesthetically-beguiling twist to your dining experience, there was set designer Tony Hornecker’s Pale Blue Door (which combined cabaret and dining in his own distinctively designed home), or the legendary MsMarmitelover’s Underground Supper Club. Gingerline founders Suz Mountfort and Kerry Adamson were inspired by both these leading lights, but quickly realized they wanted to devise something different, taking participants on an unpredictable theatrical voyage that happened to include great food. Like participants in a rave, Gingerline guests only discovered the location of the dining experience one hour beforehand, and would have no idea of the evening’s theme or what they would eat until the moment they walked through the doors.

In the early years, diners encountered non-virtuous realities including an Angela Carter-inspired circus in the heart of Siberia, an evening of submarine chic, and a cult in a church featuring saucy stained-glass projections. The atmosphere was similar to an immersive theatre production by Punchdrunk or Dreamthinkspeak. Yet with spirits and wine flowing plentifully alongside menus with an avant-garde twist, participation felt more enthusiastic. The design was always wittily idiosyncratic, and you never knew whether you were going to be invited to swing from a trapeze, be led round the tables in a conga, or be serenaded by the moon.

The only connection between the different evenings was that they would take place close to a station on the London Overground line (orange on the map, hence Gingerline). At the end of each event, all the guests were sworn to secrecy, so that each newcomer would experience the concept as a complete surprise.

A devoted online following of thousands means that Gingerline’s events often sell out within minutes (though more batches of tickets are released as the run progresses). Yet Mountfort — a creative genius whose self-deprecatory air conceals a determination of steel — decided along with Adamson that they were were going to set the stakes higher. At the start of this year we got a message that she wanted to meet up to show me the location they had found for a new stage in their Gingerline project. And so on a bright, chilly March morning we wandered down a series of back streets, before Mountfort stopped at a covered railway arch, unlocked a corrugated iron door, and let it rattle up to reveal the vast, echoing emptiness.

As we walked around the interior — which at that point, with no electricity, was illuminated only by thin daylight filtering in through the door — she explained her latest vision. "We want to create a dining experience like You-Me-Bum-Bum-Train", she said, "so each course will be in a different chamber."

Mountfort and Adamson had been to Singapore to research the food and atmosphere for the pilot project of what they were then calling ‘multidimensional dining.’ Within two months, the cavernous darkness would be transformed, not only to accommodate a professional kitchen, but a complex network of rooms including a tunnel within the tunnel through which people could be pushed on a boat.

Guests take a boat ride at The Secret Island

It sounded like madness — a restaurant spawned by Heath Robinson, where the logistical challenges would send even Heston Blumenthal into meltdown. Over the ensuing weeks, we sat in on meetings they had with the chefs (Per Eriksson and the Cuisson Team) and designers. As project manager, Adamson presided over sheets of elaborate designs, double-checking that each creative leap could be sustained practically. Mountfort would quiz the chefs on details ranging from precisely what heat the food would be by the time the guests arrived in a particular chamber to whether there were enough carbs to absorb the alcohol that would be consumed.

Amid the creative frenzy, there was a huge amount of administration concerning health and safety and keeping both the local council and the tunnel landlord appeased. A separate challenge, ingeniously solved, was how the diners would manage to take their wine from chamber to chamber without mishap.

For this pilot project, Gingerline were collaborating with designers Darling & Edge — who had also created designs for The Vaults and Selfridges — and Rhea Thierstein and her art department, who had worked with clients ranging from Stella McCartney to Somerset House. The theme was different versions of Singapore (sponsored by the country’s tourism board). Each chamber presented its own problems; one question was whether water or smashed glass crystals should be used to create a river effect, another was how extremely tall people would fit through the tunnel in the boat. Enough challenges, in other words, to fell a mammoth.

Pluck your food from the branches

When we visited the site just a couple of weeks before the opening we expected Mountfort and Adamson to look like women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But far from it, they seemed exhilarated — if judiciously wary. A hum of happy, determined creativity prevailed. The actors were being trained, the lighting, sound, and new kitchen were all set-up. All that was needed were the human guinea-pigs.

On 3 June we finally entered what was described as ‘The Secret Island.’ After being pushed through the tunnel on the boat, we entered a rainforest where we could literally pick our starter — jackfruit salad, seared salmon sesame and prawn floss lollipops — because it was hanging in plastic bulbs from the jungle canopy. So far so good, and it got better. In the next chamber we were thrust into the bustle of a Singaporean hawker market to eat street food. In the one after that we had cocktails while gazing down into the river (glass crystals), and for the main course we were entertained to a traditional chicken dish served with turmeric rice on banana leaves in a family home. By the time we reached the futuristic bar — where we were served with Pandan leaf panna cotta, lychee gel, coconut rice and palm sugar caramel — by an androgynous robot, both our senses and our stomachs were replete.

We had assumed that once the pilot had worked, Adamson and Mountfort would keep the same theme for what they now called ‘Chambers of Flavour — part flavour laboratory, part parallel reality vortex’. But their appetite for sustaining the impossible has no bounds, and they have now launched an entirely new sequence of chambers that will be welcoming diners up to Christmas and beyond. Londonist has been there, and we can say it’s even better and bolder than The Secret Island, yet like all Gingerline diners, we have vowed to keep precisely why a secret. If you want a dining experience like no other, keep a close eye on their website, and as more tickets are released leap in to beat the inevitable feeding-frenzy.

By Rachel Halliburton. Photos by Emil Bendixen

Last Updated 16 October 2015