Corinthian café

Assembly Rooms, York

Assembly Rooms, York

The most magnificent eighteenth-century interior in York is the Assembly Rooms (1731-2), designed for grand public gatherings by the grandest architect of the day, Lord Burlington (1694-1753), who for a generation locked British building design into the classical Roman style promoted by the sixteenth-century Italian architect, Andrea Palladio.

Burlington’s Yorkshire residence (now demolished) was at Londesborough, from where he would naturally visit York for the assizes and the races.  His neighbours were clearly grateful to him for providing a decorous environment for social occasions:  “We entirely leave to your lordship to do in what manner you shall think proper.”

His lordship conceived the Great Assembly Room, as it was called, as a Vitruvian Egyptian Hall – in other words, Egyptian as understood by the Roman writer Vitruvius, interpreted by the Italian designer Palladio.

It is a truly magnificent space, 112 feet by 40 feet and 40 feet high, bordered by huge Corinthian columns, eighteen on the long sides and six across the ends, painted, marbled and gilded.  In daylight this toplit space is breathtaking;  at night, when sympathetically lit, it is magical.

Now it’s a restaurant, operated by the ASK Italian chain [!/restaurants/york].

I’ve taken every opportunity to eat there because there’s no more elegant accessible eating place in the city, and I’ve regularly brought people there to be impressed.

Originally, there were tablecloths, and elegantly dressed staff, and baroque music on the PA system.

The last time I went the tables were bare and the chairs hard and modern.  All the waiters, male and female, were in denims and T-shirts.  The music was wallpaper.

The cheerful and welcoming staff were energetically hospitable.  They asked how we were so often they might have been working for the NHS.  When they were wrong-footed into a unscripted conversation they turned out to be warm and charming.

The maitre d’ tells me that all this is a marketing concept.  It’s called Milano.  Presumably it saves laundry bills while increasing footfall.  But it demeans the building.

The food is as excellent as ever.  For £13.95 my mate Richard and I had bruschetta classica (Italian bread with chopped marinated tomatoes), rigatoni di manzo piccante (pasta and meatballs) and apple rustica (essentially apple crumble).  This was the winter set menu, and will no doubt have changed with the season.

I’m imagine this admirable menu is on offer at every ASK Italian restaurant in the country.  I gather that wherever you eat it you sit on the same tables and chairs.

The furniture sits well in an ordinary building, like my local ASK Italian in Sheffield.  But there’s nothing anywhere like the York Assembly Rooms.  The building deserves appropriate dressing.

ASK Italian’s mission-statement says, “We want it to be amazing.  A restaurant that’s fresh and bold.  With a passion for the details.”  To which I say, in York at least, bring back tablecloths (paper if necessary) and turn up the Vivaldi.

The 44-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic York tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £7.50 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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