Just a few years ago it was a concrete jungle earmarked for demolition. Now a multi-million-pound facelift is drawing London event organisers back to the South Bank. Square Meal explores the area’s venues

London’s love affair with the stretch of riverbank between the bridges of Westminster and Blackfriars has always been a turbulent one. The post-war optimism of the South Bank’s early development – starting with the Royal Festival Hall in 1951 – turned to widespread criticism of the Southbank Centre’s grey facade and mass of concrete walkways.London South Bank

In the late 1990s, plans were submitted to tear down the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Purcell Room and the Hayward Gallery and, in 2002, the South Bank was deemed ‘squalid, seedy and menacing’ by a Culture, Media and Sports Committee report.

Thankfully, the demolition plans were abandoned and steps have since been taken to address the commitees’s concerns. Five years on, the area is thriving. Familiar features such as the graffitied skate park, the angular 1960s architecture and the soaring spokes of the BA London Eye are now interspersed with clusters of gleaming new shops, cafés and restaurants. The former National Film Theatre and Museum of the Moving Image building has just reopened as an innovative film centre, and, what was once just the back of the Royal Festival Hall (the river side) has been transformed into a vibrant eating and drinking destination. In June, the completion of the £111m renovation of the Southbank Centre will be marked with a weekend of free music events. With visitor numbers soaring to around 15 million a year, London, it seems, is falling back in love with the South Bank.

Host to street entertainers, riverside festivals, art exhibitions, concerts and theatre performances, the South Bank’s significance as a cultural quarter will be cemented with the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall on 11 June. ‘London is going to be home to one of the greatest centres for the arts in the world,’ says Karen Napier, head of development at the Southbank Centre. ‘The Royal Festival Hall has been totally transformed. It’s a Grade-I listed building, so all the history and beauty is still there – it’s just been brought in to the 21st century. We’re providing entertainment that we never thought possible.’

It’s been a long time coming, but the South Bank is finally capitalising on its fantastic central position. ‘It’s a phenomenal location for events, especially now that the whole area has been completely regenerated,’ explains Napier, who emphasises the national significance of the remodelled Royal Festival Hall. ‘This is one of the most exciting and compelling buildings the country has ever seen. There’s a lot of kudos attached to being part of something that’s so important for the UK. When organisers invite guests here, they’re bringing them to a place that’s new and exciting and giving them the opportunity to be part of what’s happening in London.’

Indeed, event organisers are flocking back to the area’s venues. The Orange Prize for Fiction was the first event to be held at the newly refurbished Royal Festival Hall just before its reopening. Meanwhile, Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman co-hosted a private preview of the Antony Gormley exhibition at the Hayward Gallery followed by dinner for 200 at Skylon restaurant, D&D London’s big June opening on the first floor of the Southbank Centre.

‘It’s a really buzzy, vibrant place to take clients now – there’s so much going on,’ says Kate Carmichael, strategy manager for Accenture, a company based in the Shell Building behind the BA London Eye. ‘The whole area has come alive. It’s great to have such a range of venues right on your doorstep.’

Could this vibrant area be the location for your next event? Read on to find out more on all its best venues, from lively bars and restaurants to urban galleries and landmark museums. Between Westminster and Blackfriars bridge (as far back as Belvedere Road/Upper Ground), we’ve got it covered and there’s even a separate section that concentrates on venue gems in the backstreets behind.


BFI Southbank

WHAT: the relaunched National Film Theatre has doubled its capacity and now features cutting-edge, audio-visual technology in three auditoria and a moving image gallery

BEST FOR: conferences and presentations

TOP TIP: the state-of-the-art 38-seater auditorium is perfect for seminars

Belvedere Road, SE1, tel: 020 7815 1343

FR: 5 M: 450 D:- R: 400

The London Eye

WHAT: unique entertaining space aboard the world’s tallest observation wheel. Hire one capsule or the whole Eye

BEST FOR: corporate events, celebrations and office parties

TOP TIP: the intimate capsules (think captive audience) and the 30-minute flight time make it ideal for product launches

Riverside Building, County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1, tel: 0870 443 9150 

FR: 3 M: 25 D:- R: 800

County Hall Gallery

WHAT: highly original exhibition centre with over 3,000sq ft of creative space, from wacky and surreal (complete with Dalí originals) to intimate galleries

BEST FOR: conferences, exhibitions and product launches

TOP TIP: get bookings in quickly – the urban-chic White Space closes for a year from October 2007

Westminster Bridge Road, SE1, tel: 020 7620 2765

FR: 4 M: 150 D: 220 R: 1,000

County Hall Restaurant

WHAT: part of the Marriott hotel, the restaurant offers private dining for up to 66 in wood-panelled grandeur

BEST FOR: private dining

TOP TIP: combine a daytime meeting in one of the hotel’s many meeting rooms with an evening meal in the restaurant

Queen’s Walk, Westminster Bridge Road, tel: 0871 075 1826

FR: 1 M: - D: 66 R: -

Doggett’s Coat & Badge

WHAT: popular pub spread over four floors on the South Bank with great views of the river. Facilities include a board room, terrace bar and private dining room

BEST FOR: parties and informal entertaining

TOP TIP: The Terrace Bar overlooking the river seats 50 and has a purpose-built barbecue

1 Blackfriars Bridge, tel: 020 7633 9081

FR: 3 M: 50 D: 80 R:120


WHAT: a small gallery on the riverside walkway at Oxo Tower Wharf with a lively programme of temporary exhibitions

BEST FOR: exhibitions and receptions

TOP TIP: sister venue, Coin Street Neighbourhood Centre, opens this September and will include a number of meeting and conference rooms

Oxo Tower Wharf, Barge House Street, SE1, tel: 020 7401 4255

FR: 1 M: 30 D:- R:200

Las Iguanas

WHAT: lively Latin bar and restaurant available for exclusive or part hire, complete with cachaçaria

BEST FOR: parties and receptions

TOP TIP: the terrace is perfect for summer cocktail parties

Festival Walk, Belvedere Walk, SE1, tel: 020 7620 1328

FR: 2 M: 0 D: 300 R: 500

London Aquarium

WHAT: sip Champagne with the sharks and dine with a range of sea-life as your backdrop at one of London’s top attractions

BEST FOR: cocktail parties and dinners

TOP TIP: make sure your event coincides with a shark feed – it provides a great talking point for guests.

County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1, tel: 020 7967 8020

FR: 3 M: 150 D:180 R:220

London Marriott Hotel County Hall

WHAT: grand hotel with great river views and a selection of well-equipped Wi-Fi meeting and breakout rooms

BEST FOR: conferences and meetings

TOP TIP: try the Lounge & Parliament Suite for spectacular views

Westminster Bridge Road, SE1, tel: 020 7928 5200

FR: 9 M: 150 D: 140 R: 160

London Studios

WHAT: home to some of the nation’s favourite TV shows, the four studios housed within the ITV Tower and Riverside Bar can add some real showbiz sparkle to a corporate event

BEST FOR: product launches, parties and award ceremonies

TOP TIP: there’s a brand new suite of interconnecting rooms on the 14th floor

Upper Ground SE1, tel: 020 7261 8181

FR: 7 M: 630 D: - R: 200


WHAT: state-of-the-art entertainment venue with a pool, techno-bowling, bumper cars and over 150 interactive video games – all you’d need to treat guests to lots of big kid fun

BEST FOR: teambuilding, parties and client entertaining with a difference

TOP TIP: the bowling alley has a special floor so there is no need to hire shoes

Riverside Building, SE1, tel: 020 7967 1060, squaremeal.co.uk/namco

FR: 4 M: 50 D:- R: 1,200

The National Theatre

WHAT: prime arts venue with highly versatile foyers, restaurants, private rooms and terraces all available for hire

BEST FOR: corporate entertaining, product launches and receptions

TOP TIP: the Olivier Stalls Foyer (capacity 400) has great views of the Thames

South bank SE1, tel: 020 7452 3560

FR: 7 M:150 D: 250 R: 500

OXO Tower Private Room

WHAT: part of the second-floor space in the OXO Tower formerly known as River Walk, this brand-new dedicated function suite is now available for exclusive hire

BEST FOR: private dining and receptions

TOP TIP: the room has its own private entrance on Barge House Street

Barge House St, SE1, tel: 020 7803 3802

FR: 1 M: 100 D: 120 R:200

OXO Tower Restaurant Bar & Brasserie

WHAT: this is stylish entertaining at its best. Stunning views of St Paul’s and the Thames from way up high make OXO one of London’s most memorable dining experiences

BEST FOR: dining, receptions and parties

TOP TIP: the restaurant can arrange fireworks over the river which will thoroughly impress your guests

Barge House St, SE1, tel: 020 7803 3888

FR: 2 M: 100 D: 150 R: 350

the room by the river

WHAT: multi award-winning venue managed by Fortesqueue’s, which is transformed into a secret garden in summer and a winter wonderland for the Christmas party season

BEST FOR: bespoke summer and Christmas parties or large daytime meetings

TOP TIP: book now for ‘Christmas under the Stars’, organised by the resident event professionals

99 Upper Ground SE1, tel: 0870 901 0203

FR: 3 M: 800 Summer (1,000 Xmas) D: 700 (1,100) R: 1,500 (3,000)


WHAT: opening at the end of May in the Royal Festival Hall, in the space formerly occupied by the People’s Palace, Skylon’s bar and grill will offer all-day dining for 100 and a formal 90-seater restaurant. A semi-private area, the River View Reception, can take up to 40 for cocktail parties

BEST FOR: dining and receptions

TOP TIP: floor-to-ceiling windows give stunning river views across all three event spaces

Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, tel: 020 7716 7887

FR: 3 M: tbc D: tbc R: tbc

Southbank Centre – The Hayward Gallery

WHAT: host to leading international exhibitions, the glass Waterloo Sunset Pavilion and Upper Foyer within the Gallery can be combined with private viewings or as a stand-alone evening function space

BEST FOR: private viewings, receptions, dinners and meetings

TOP TIP: for an evening reception, welcome your guests in the pavilion before moving on to guided tours round the Antony Gormley’s Blind Light exhibition

Belvedere Road, SE1, tel: 020 7921 0680

FR: 1 M: 80 D:110 R: 200

Southbank Centre – Purcell Room

WHAT: fixed-seating auditorium, which comes with a lighting rig, PA system and two technicians to control it all

BEST FOR: conferences and debates

TOP TIP: combine a daytime conference with an evening of theatre or music at the National or the Royal Festival Hall

Belvedere Road, SE1, tel: 020 7921 0680

FR: 1 M: 370 D:- R: -

Southbank Centre – Queen Elizabeth Hall

WHAT: the second largest concert hall on the centre’s site, this venue has a seating capacity of over 900. It is also possible to close the complex to the public, giving exclusive access for your event

BEST FOR: performances and conferences

TOP TIP: the QEH shares a foyer with the smaller Purcell Room – a good break-out area if you are using both spaces

Belvedere Road, SE1, Tel: 020 7921 0680

FR: 1 M: 900 D: 0 R: 0

Southbank Centre – Royal Festival Hall

WHAT: the centerpiece of the Southbank Centre has undergone a £91m refurbishment. Several function rooms can host between 20 and 200, while the state-of-the-art auditorium itself seats 2,780

BEST FOR: large conferences, award ceremonies, AGMs, dinners and launches

TOP TIP: entertain before a show in the 250-capacity function room near the Royal Box on Level 5 – it has great views over Westminster and the Houses of Parliament

South Bank Centre, SE1, tel: 020 7921 0680

FR: Numerous M: 2,780 D: 2,300 R: 2,760


The Royal Festival Hall’s £91m renovation and restoration will come to an end this June after three years, and the venue will re-open, bigger and better than before.

The fully refitted auditorium, with fixed seating for 2,780, is the biggest space, followed by the second-floor ballroom (the largest such space in the UK), which can hold 800 standing or 440 seated.

On level four, the Green Bar holds 500 standing and the Blue Bar 300. On level five, a function room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooks the BA London Eye, which can hold 250 standing, or 160 for dinner or theatre-style meetings. On the third floor lies two smaller rooms (the Sunley pavilion and its next-door function room), which hold 60 standing, 40 theatre-style, or 20 boardroom-style.

The stand-out space is the Hayward Waterloo Sunset Pavilion: an elliptical room surrounded by two-way mirror glass which offers sensational views over London. It’s an artwork in itself, and holds 150 standing guests, 60 theatre-style delegates, or 70 diners on round tables. There is also the option of having dinner for 30 on a bespoke curved table designed for the room, and the pavilion opens out onto the lobby if extra space is needed.

There are also two brand new roof terraces on level six – the first with views of the BA London Eye, towards the Houses of Parliament and Westminster and the second looking down the river to St Pauls – though they are available only to corporate members of the Southbank Centre.


Away from the waterfront, a wide range of Southwark venues are feeling the halo effects of the South Bank’s regeneration

BFI Imax

Stadium-style seating and an advanced digital stereo system cater for conferences, screenings and AGMs, while the spacious lobby is best suited to receptions.

1 Charlie Chaplin Walk, South Bank, SE1, tel: 0870 780 2986

FR: 3 M: 470 D: 80 R: 350

The Fire Station

This high-ceilinged former fire station is now divided into a more formal dining room and a pleasantly shabby bar area, which can be sectioned off for hire.

150 Waterloo Road, SE1, tel: 020 7620 2226

FR: 2 M: - D: 85 R: 80

Imperial War Museum

Diverse spaces at the landmark venue include a cinema, traditional boardrooms, a conference room and a stretch of parkland, as well as the dramatic glass-domed atrium with its suspended aeroplanes.

Lambeth Road, SE1, tel: 0870 781 5190

FR: 5 M: 200 D: 400 R: 1000

The Old Vic

An atmospheric restored 19th-century theatre with a traditional-tiered auditorium, two rehearsal rooms and three front-of-house bars. Limited wheelchair access.

The Cut, SE1, tel: 020 7261 9161

FR: 6 M: 1,000 D: tbc R: 200


A well-worn interior, welcoming staff and decent cuisine ensures that the restaurant’s two private rooms remain popular.

33 Coin Street, SE1, tel: 020 7928 4554

FR: 2 M: - D: 50 R: 50

Thai Pavilion East

This glass-fronted, light-filled branch of the Thai chain, next to the Imperial War Museum, offers a dining room for exclusive hire.

Lambeth Towers, 82 Kennington Road, SE11, tel: 020 7587 0455

FR: 1 M: - D: 80 R: 200

The Violin Factory

As well as a sleek dining room, this loft-style venue has a fully equipped kitchen, a separate prep area and a tiny (but nevertheless state-of-the-art) screening room seating 10.

35a Cornwall Road, SE1, tel: 020 7887 1903

FR: 2 M: 60 D: 60 R: 120

Waterloo Bar & Kitchen

A classic wood-filled dining room and private room conveniently located for Waterloo and the Old Vic theatre with modern European food from an appealing menu.

131 Waterloo Road, SE1, tel: 020 7928 5086

FR: 2 M: 80 D: 75 R: 100

Young Vic

Opened last October, the light, industrial event spaces of the Old Vic’s little brother include an airy restaurant and bar, the main auditorium (limited availability) and two studio theatres.

66 The Cut, SE1, tel: 020 7922 2922

FR: 2 M: - D: 85 R: 80


Most of the riverside’s chain restaurants – think Strada, Wagamama and the Gourmet Pizza Company – do not offer private hire, although some have large tables available for between 12 and 20

Benugo at the British Film Institute is rarely available for hire, but when obtainable can hold 150 standing. The Film Café in the same building can take 400 for a stand-up reception. Both offer a British-oriented menu and ‘the best Bloody Mary on the South Bank’. Belvedere Road, tel: 020 7815 1343

Canteen has opened an offshoot of its Spitalfields incarnation in the RFH, serving the same modern British food. Sections of the dining room can be hired for up to 60 people, or a giant booth table seats ten. Southbank Centre Square, tel: 0845 686 1122

Giraffe, the family-friendly restaurant known for it’s healthy international cuisine, is housed in the Royal Festival Hall complex and can seat 50 for dinner. The whole restaurant (capacity 300), which has outside seating, can be hired at the manager’s discretion. Unit 1 and 2, Southbank Centre, tel: 020 7928 2004

OXO Tower is famous for its modern European food and views over the Thames. The brasserie and restaurant hold 150 for dinner or 350 for a reception, and the bar and second-floor event space can each accommodate 50 seated or 100 standing. Bargehouse Street, SE1, tel: 020 7803 3888, squaremeal.co.uk/oxo

Ping Pong, the latest outpost of the dim sum chain, is available for exclusive hire (300 standing/200 seated over two floors). Capacities can be increased by 50 if the terrace is also used. The lounge bar only holds 150 standing or 60 seated. Festival Terrace, Belvedere Road, tel: 020 7960 4160

The Riverside Terrace Café on level 2 of the Royal Festival Hall will also be available for private hire when it opens in June, but capacities could not be confirmed as we went to press. Level 2, Royal Festival Hall

Tamesa@OXO has a private dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows and river views. It can seat up to 25 and set menus start at £35. Second Floor, Oxo Tower Wharf, tel: 020 7633 0088

This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, Summer 2007.