Design Focus: Montpeliers, Edinburgh

Having opened 22 years ago on Bruntsfield Place, Montpeliers is now firmly entrenched as an Edinburgh institution. But now it has a new look. At the beginning of June the bar underwent a complete overhaul.

The bar, owned by Montpeliers, was the first bar to open in the business, and was originally two separate buildings which were knocked through to create the original Montpeliers.

The most recent refurb was carried out by David Johnstone, Montpeliers’ Development Director, and Wendy Elliot. The two were responsible for the interior design and project management. Although MD of Montpeliers David Wither was obviously well aware of the refurbishment plans, he was on holiday whilst the work was completed. David Johnstone says, “There was some nervousness – Montpeliers was David (Wither’s) first venue and is very much his baby, I didn’t want to be the one who broke it! When he first walked in after the refurb his jaw hit the floor, he was gob-smacked at how different it was, in a good way thankfully.”

The first dramatic change has been the colour of the exterior. Montpeliers is now royal blue, whereas it was previously a light turquoise, and an abundance of potted plants on the outdoor seating adds a softening cornucopia of white and lavender. The wooden window frames have been replaced by large, single panes of glass which are perhaps the most striking feature of the refurbishment. The new windows create a sense of space and comfort, and will surely be appreciated by those who love nothing more than to while away the hours people-watching.

David told me, “The biggest piece of the refurbishment was the frontage, stripping back the stone and getting in behind it to see if it was good enough. It’s a combination of brick and stone, and tells the story of the bar evolving over time.” It was clearly a huge undertaking, and David was quick to praise Novo Architects for their work on the project.

He continued, “When the building was built in the 1830s they had actually designed the technology to allow large glass windows, but they had been removed in one of the bar’s previous incarnations to make it look ‘contemporary’. We wanted to take it right back to its Victorian roots. In general terms it’s about honest materials, we wanted the venue to be warm and comforting, not big and glitzy.”

The indoor layout has completely changed. The front door has been shifted to left of the building to allow entrance into the bar space, which is now highly visible through the large window panes. The bar itself has been pushed right back, increasing the standing space and adding to the general sense of spaciousness of the venue. The chestnut coloured bar top compliments the ivory coloured panels that run underneath. Naked bulbs illuminate the bar area, and draw attention to the mesh-fronted shelves that hold the spare bottled spirits above the bar top. One of the most distinctive features is the grey and black floor tiling.

The window space by the bar used to be occupied by black, chesterfield sofas; these have been replaced by smaller, round tables, extending the cafe area over both sides of the room’s partition. The main cafe area evokes a Parisian feel, with the same tables dotted casually around the floor area and a wooden bar top just before the restaurant that is perfect for reading the daily papers whilst enjoying a coffee. You can imagine this space becoming a busy social hub for regulars and locals catching up over a casual drink or bite to eat.

The restaurant is on a raised level from the cafe. Green banquettes line the wall, with a parallel row of tables adorned with potted lavender. The tweed and leather chairs, like practically everything else in the refurbishment, were chosen by David, and strike a neat balance between the traditional and the contemporary.

The artwork that adorns the restaurant walls, which have been stripped back to the original brick, was selected by stylist Fiona Storey, and comprise of a collage of seemingly unconnected art and photographs. A portrait of a bearded sailor sits alongside a sketched nude and a pastel nature landscape, creating an arresting and idiosyncratic collection of images. David told me, “We wanted it to have the feel of being owned by an interesting local writer or artist, to be personal and collected. We’re a family run business and it should feel like one. We’ll most likely look at renewing the artwork and some of the interior in two or three years. As is the nature to style bars, if you don’t keep moving and evolving you’ll soon get left behind.”

The sense of being surrounded by an individual’s ‘collection’ is never more clear than in the new snug area at the rear of the building, which increases the venue’s capacity by 14 covers. This cozy space, populated by the same tables and chairs as the restaurant, features a bookcase hosting second hand books, an antique typewriter and an assortment of candleholders, amongst many other items. It feels personal, lived-in, and is destined to be popular space for private functions. The window faces out onto a private garden shared with the street’s residents, and Montpeliers have planted flowers and plants to add warmth to this communal area.

When David told me the refurb only took ten days I was surprised; when he told me how much it cost I was astonished. He said, “It was a massive job, everything was ripped out, including the plumbing and wiring, and taken right back to the original stonework. There’s not one thing in the bar that’s the same, with the exception of the speakers. The last refit was seven years ago, lots of utilities and services that had taken a battering over the years needed work.”

He continued, “We managed to complete the work in Montpeliers for £180K, and the majority of people who’ve seen the new look assume it must have cost twice as much. At the risk of sounding conceited, having completed so many refurbishments now we’re getting better at this, in terms of getting bang for our buck. The refurb was financed with our own money, and it’s our intention to keep operating like this going forward – gone are the days when you could just chuck money around in a carefree manner.”

Concludes David, “I hope that we’ll continue to be a vibrant pub in the heart of Bruntsfield. We’ve always been Montpeliers Bar and Bistro, or Cafe, or Restaurant. I couldn’t find a word that sums up what we do, so we’re now just Montpeliers Bruntsfield. We’ll let out customers decide what we are to them.”

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