Mayoman Oliver Peyton was once a hard-drinking, fast-living member of London's wealthiest and hippest set. Nowadays the restaurateur's life revolves around his family, and he has moved into the more restrained world of gallery restaurants, but without losing his competitive edge. Julia Molony met the phenomenon
'Somebody asked me recently if I thought the days in the Atlantic were the best in my life," says indefatigable optimist Oliver Peyton. "And I said, 'are you joking? I haven't had them yet'."
How to introduce Peyton's eclectic career? His CV might say restaurateur, but he's more of a lifestyle phenomenon. He is hailed as one of the most influential figures in food in his adopted city, London. By the age of 35, Peyton had gone from his humble roots in Swinford, Co Mayo, to conquer the core of New Labour's Cool Britannia.
As the proprietor of the world-famous, but now defunct, Atlantic Bar and Grill, Peyton secured his place as a landmark of British boom culture. Not only did he provide the playground for the stars of the blossoming media and arts scenes, he was also more than willing to show the kids how to have a good time.
Nowadays, Peyton has all but given up drink, and claims to have mellowed. He has also branched out into TV as a food industry guru. However, his abiding taste for Vivienne Westwood and fun (teetotal or otherwise) suggests he is an expert drawn more in the image of Keith Richards than Jamie Oliver.
While still a teenager, Peyton left the simple life in bucolic Mayo where he remembers his family "killing pigs in a barn and the blood in the yard and that sort of thing". His buccaneering spirit took him to Britain at a time when its capital was on the cusp of a new era. Financially, culturally and socially, things were kicking off.
Having abandoned a degree in textiles, Peyton started out running clubs in Brighton, before opening the nightclub RAW in London with DJ Fatboy Slim.
In his 20s, he had a successful business importing designer booze brands. Demonstrating that marketing savvy that has always kept him one skip ahead of the zeitgeist, he introduced a generation of newly affluent Londoners to the idea of premium, designer drinks. In his early 30s, Peyton stumbled across the 19th-Century ballroom that was to become the premises for Atlantic Bar and Grill. Combining outlandish design, cracking food and an eccentric, insouciant atmosphere, it quickly became a magnet for, well, everyone who was anyone. Rock stars, media darlings, Young British Artists and fashion designers gathered.
Peyton's reputation went stratospheric, and what followed wasthe best part of 10 years on the razz with the hippest set in town. AA Gill has referred to him in the past as the third Gallagher brother. Before long, he was building his empire into a collection of design-led, concept restaurants; Coast, Mash, Isolde and Mash & Air in Manchester, all of which have now gone. But now, Peyton occupies a different area of the market.
Over lunch in one of his newer places, The National Dining Rooms in London's Portrait Gallery, the nattily-dressed bon viveur looks back over the evolution of his brand, and how it has always run in synch with his personality.
The National Dining Rooms is part of an expansion into galleries and museums, and the world of daytime diners. He also has The National Cafe, in the National Gallery, and has just opened a place in the British Library. "I've grown up," he says of the drastic change.
This new pace is reflected in his current portfolio of businesses, seven restaurants in various tranquil locations, from the eco-conscious Inn The Park, to the pastoral-feeling The Lawn, in Fulham.
Though Peyton's life may have calmed down, it hasn't lost his edge. An average day can still stretch to include "going from meeting a member of the royal family, to a pop star to a kitchen porter who's come in on a boat from Cameroon". He says this all sounding quite satisfied with the way things have turned out.
And who could blame him? He's managed to combine hard-won success with an irrepressible, club-hopping odyssey through the high times. The Groucho Club was practically his second residence for a long time, and as he admits himself, "If you spend enough time in the Groucho Club, trouble finds you." What sort of trouble? I ask, but he deflects the question with a look of incredulity at the suggestion he might tell.
Still, the following anecdote taken from a period when he was making more money than he knew what to do with gives a bit of a flavour. "We could do what we wanted. We'd all be sitting in the Groucho Club and somebody would say -- let's go to Madrid. And we'd all get up and go to Madrid. Literally, it was: "Why don't we go to Madrid?' 'Great idea.' 'What about clothes?' 'Don't worry, we'll buy some.'
"At the time in London, it was a halcyon period," he explains. "We were young. We had a lot of money. Not a lot of sense -- just very carefree. I think I had more money then than I do now. I had more disposable income. I just had so much cash. I really did. It was bonkers. I could do whatever I wanted. It was great. I have had a great life."
Charmed, you might say. But, of course, any party train without brakes risks becoming a wreck. In 1998 he married Charlotte Polizzi, granddaughter of world-famous hotelier Lord Forte. ("My wife is in catering," he says, with delightful understatement). When they decided to have children, the obvious thing was for him to slow down, but he soon realised the partying had gathered such pace it wasn't just going to slow down by itself.
"The problem was, I was tipping up towards 40. And I wanted to have children... If you want me to be really honest. I think you need to realise sometimes when you are beaten. I didn't know how to stop. I just think I had too good a time. I was probably quite spoilt. You think you're naturally going to slow down. I didn't. I just kept going. I really enjoyed what I was doing, but I wanted something else."
He took decisive action, checked into The Priory and gave up booze. "It's not that I don't drink," he insists. "I drink about once a year."
There is a rationale, it turns out, behind his refusal to moralise, or over-emphasise his own conversion to sobriety. He has no regrets. It was a brilliant time. "There is too much negative shit about stopping drinking, stopping taking drugs and all of that. I think people need to square up to the reality of modern life. That we're not the same as our parents were, and we are exposed to different sorts of pressures than our parents were. It's just what it is. So I sort of don't like to talk about it any other way. You just need to know when enough is enough. No-one wants to be a middle-aged drunk. What do you want to be a middle-aged drunk for? It's deeply unattractive. It's fine when you are in your 20s or even a bit into your 30s. But in your 40s?"
These days, he says, "most of the people I hung out with now don't drink at all". Which I think must reveal something about how hard they pushed it back then. To him, it's telling for a different reason. "Because I think we were all quite creative people. And we all had the good sense to know when we were licked. I don't see anything wrong with going wild and crazy. It was great."
For Peyton, family life now fills the time he used to spend cracking open magnums of champagne. His son Finn, daughter Molly, and baby Connor keep him busy. Plus, he's always got new projects on the go. He's just rolled out a new chain of bakeries across London in partnership with his sister Siobhan, with whom he has worked since his importing days. Indeed, all three of his younger sisters have been subsumed into the business.
And then there is his blossoming media career. In early May, he will star in a new RTE documentary series, Recipe For Success, advising kitchen sink entrepreneurs on start-up food businesses. Peyton is full of all the sort of strident opinions that TV producers love in a lifestyle expert, and happily holds forth on everything from indigenous food in Ireland and the shortcomings of Bord Bia.
"I think the most interesting thing about the show was the cast of characters. It is a little window into modern Ireland."
Back in Britain, he's become a more familiar face thanks to The BBC's The Great British Menu, on which he is a judge.
For Peyton, the bottom line has always been having fun. He's not motivated by money. "I wouldn't be in restaurants if I was," he says. Yet he admits to liking money because of what you can do with it.
He adds, "There's too much snobbery about restaurants. I hate going into posh restaurants. I hate going into a restaurant that is full of suits. I hate it. I hate the concept that the only people who can afford a restaurant is a bunch of boring old businessmen, who spend all their time talking about some stupid Bordeaux wine only they can afford." Breathing life and a sybaritic spirit into a place, even within the reverent space of a gallery, seems to be his special skill.
Peyton is a bit of a lesson in how not to let the grinding pursuit of success overtake the pleasure of its rewards. "I'm a very competitive person. I come from a very poor, west coast of Ireland family. My parents spent all their money educating us -- literally all their money -- to give us a better life which has just made me naturally competitive. That's just who I am. And I would compete from first thing in the morning until the moment I go to sleep at night," he says.
Of course, there has to be some other, more gritty motivation at work. Struggle, he admits has been part of it.
"When I was younger, because of being Irish and lots of other things, I used to have very low self-esteem. I was quite chippy about being Irish. Now I don't give a shit what anyone thinks about me. I'm old enough and wise enough to know they're not better than me. No-one is better than you ever. And I wish I understood that earlier," he says.
Knuckling down and embracing family life hasn't dented his emphasis on enjoyment and pleasure. His domestic life sounds like an artful balance of work and play.
"We've a house in Cornwall and we go there a lot. I take six weeks' holiday. I just don't work nine to five. But sometimes I go and pick them [his children] up [from school] if I get a slack moment. In some ways I have more freedom and in other ways I don't. My family is important to me and there is no point in having a family unless you are going to be there."
Though he describes each of his seven restaurants as requiring the same sort of attention as a newborn baby, he somehow manages to keep everything afloat, while still being a hands- on dad.
"Sometimes I find it difficult to see them except for the mornings and at weekends, and other times I see them lots. It just depends how busy I am. We eat breakfast together every day. And I try to be there for some dinners. But we eat all meals at the weekend together, so, you know, it's enough!"
Recipe for Success begins on RTE One on Thursday, May 7, at 8.30pm