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Breathtaking views and exclusive access make the top floors of ‘The Gherkin’ one of London’s hottest event spaces. Louise Troy finds it lives up to the hype
Several London addresses command spectacular views of the capital, but few can rival those of 30 St Mary Axe, the iconic building affectionately known as 'The Gherkin'. Looming large over the river and instantly recognisable, this is a structure for which the phrase ‘wow factor’ must have been created – and the fact that it’s closed to the public only adds to the appeal.
First and foremost a hard-working office building, event space has only recently become openly available here. But because exclusive bookings for the bar and restaurant are restricted to week nights and weekends, the place is very much in demand. ‘My job is almost over by the time I get people in for a look around,’ says events manager Sarah Dibden. ‘I think people over-use the phrase “unique venue”, but this really is.’
Sitting in the bar on the 40th floor, it’s impossible to disagree. The shuttle lift that takes you from the 34th floor upwards is propelled from below, which means there’s none of the usual clunky machinery surrounding it to obscure the view at the apex. The bar’s stunning 360˚ panorama will keep you occupied for hours. And if you look up, there’s nothing between you and the sky except the building’s only curved piece of glass, the 8ft wide ‘lens’.
Although it seems a shame that so few people get to experience this, Dibden says it’s a real asset for event organisers. ‘People tend to find that their turnout is 10-15 per cent higher when they come here,’ she says. ‘It’s all down to the curiosity factor.’ Another notable advantage is that the space needs no dressing, although Dibden says ice sculptures and coloured lighting both work well with the feel of the building.
The Gherkin experience starts in the lobby, which looks like a science fiction writer’s vision of the future. Everyone is required to go through airport-style scanners, so event managers are advised to put registration tables on the ground floor. Guests are then whisked up in the high-rise lift to level 34, before changing to the shuttle for access to the top.
The event space, which spreads over three floors, is minimalist and mainly monochrome, with little besides the structure itself to distract from the breathtaking views. At the top, occupying levels 39 and 40, are the bar and restaurant, which must be hired together. As such, they can accommodate dinners for up to 70 people or stand-up receptions for between 120 and 260 guests.
For those looking to entertain on a smaller scale, there are a further five private rooms (seating between six and 14) on level 38. These can be hired separately for breakfast, lunch or dinner on any day of the week and are the only spaces suitable for meetings – the event team decided it would be inappropriate to hold conferences upstairs because delegates would be too distracted by the panoramic views.
All areas come with sleek black leather chairs and have been fitted with fine mesh blinds to block out the glare of the sun. As the light fades, white tablecloths are swapped for blue to prevent reflections from obscuring the night-time views.
Events are capably catered for by Searcy, while the menus, developed by Richard Corrigan of the Michelin-starred Lindsay House in Soho, focus on modern European food with global influences. On the canapé list, exotic choices such as chicken yakitori and sushi sit alongside favourites from closer to home, but there’s also bowl food and a five-course tasting menu for more substantial choices.
None of this comes cheap. The tasting menu may look like a steal at £79 a head, but room hire (£9,000 for the main space and £125-plus for the smaller rooms) is extra and, once drinks are added, bills can reach appropriately dizzy heights.
Not that anyone is complaining. Bob Horst, founding partner of US law firm Nelson Levine deLuca & Horst, held a cocktail party for 125 friends and clients, and thought the price tag was more than justified.
‘It was worth the expense,’ he confirms. ‘Our clients and all of the representatives from our firm collectively agreed that it was the finest venue for a party that we’ve ever experienced. It is a world-class location.’ Describing the building’s views and atmosphere as ‘fantastic’, he goes on to add: ‘The service and the attention to detail were not far behind.’
So is anyone likely to find 30 St Mary Axe unappealing? Dibden ponders for a second. ‘I do get some clients who turn to me in the lifts and say, “I’m not good with heights”. I suppose it’s not really the best place for someone with vertigo.’
Address: 30 St Mary Axe, off Leadenhall Street, EC3A 8EP
Tel: 020 7071 5009
Number of function rooms: 6
Music room (60/60/120)
Bar & restaurant: (-/70/260)
Private dining rooms 1 & 5 (6/6/-)
Private dining rooms 2 & 4 (10/10/-)
Private dining room 3 (14/14/-)
Contact: Sarah Dibden, event manager
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2007.