London or New York? For the launch of Eater London, writers discuss which is the better food city.
There are two unequivocal truths about London’s restaurant industry in 2017: It is a fantastic, dynamic, diverse and energetic place to eat, and there has never been a better time to eat in the city. There is one thing about which we can be less certain however. As observers of culinary progress globally, it must be asked, how much does London actually matter?
In recent years and months, commentators have begun to declare with increasing confidence and regularity that London is “the greatest restaurant city in the world.” It is the kind of statement that is necessarily posited with neither forethought nor sufficient self-awareness. But if enough people say it, enough people hear it. And if enough people hear it, it starts to be believed. It is a truth insofar as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
(To be clear, there is no one city that is singularly the best restaurant city in the world. The value in such a statement is directly proportional only to the hubris of those who wish to volunteer it.)
So, let’s try to assess the facts. London is a city in which the restaurant scene has boomed. It can be said, objectively, that things have dramatically improved. Visitors with an appetite would once, in the not so distant past, have been about as excited about what they were going to eat in London as they would be when they went to Malta. That is no longer the case.
This is where we are now.
Perhaps the most important development in London’s culinary coming-of-age is the consolidation of what we can legitimately call “British cuisine.” Lots, rightly, is said about the role and significance of St. John. But for now, let us highlight that restaurant’s children and grandchildren — the places that today refute the notion that Britain is gastronomically retrograde. No longer are Londoners forced to battle the presupposition that battered fish, chips, pies and Yorkshire puddings constitute and constipate its food culture.
Today, in the city, three of London’s best restaurants care neither for Michelin stars nor conventional authenticators of prestige, but about ingredients, tradition and simple, time-honoured modes of preparation. The Quality Chop House, Marksman and 40 Maltby Street all, to a greater or lesser extent, do not muck about. And they and we both reap the rewards.
The other significant area of domestic regeneration has been in the historically freighted arena of fine dining. The influence of Noma is without question, but London’s most forward-thinking and lauded restaurants of the last five years have fused the principles of New Nordicism with specific interests of their own. Where the template for fine dining was once exclusively French, the best chefs in London — who have superseded Gordon Ramsay, Marcus Wareing, Hélène Darroze and The Roux brothers — are influenced by a plurality of cuisines and styles: The Ledbury in The Clove Club; Per Se in Kitchen Table; Raymond Blanc in Dabbous.
Lyle’s is an outlier. Perhaps the closest place London has had to seminal restaurant, in part because it derives from St. John and River Cafe. James Lowe and John Ogier withstood a fairly lukewarm initial reception by carrying on doing exactly what they were doing — the only thing they knew was the only way they wanted to be. They rejected PR and forged ahead with a (then novel) fixed-course tasting menu at dinner for under £40. It was in many ways Noma-lite, but it was also a Bread and Wine for Millennials and very close in principle, if not always execution, to the likes of 40 Maltby Street. Lyle’s remains the template of a British neo-bistro.
Among the most important accomplishments of this generation of chefs was their ability to update the restaurant experience and make it more accessible, not least for a younger generation. These restaurants were comparatively more affordable, more informal and irreverent.
This evolving culture of gastronomic minimalism has meanwhile spurned a new, (bio)dynamic iteration of the wine bar.
The evolution and embrace of wine culture has been in part because of a closer relationship between chefs, wine importers and winemakers — the central tenets of cave bistronomy borrowed from Paris and Copenhagen, given space to interact with chefs and suppliers in a London context. P. Franco, with their rotating guest chefs and produce-led output, is the most advanced among a group of new, ambitious wine bars. But Newcomer Wines and Furanxo in Dalston both adhere to principles of meticulous sourcing and slick presentation; in all cases, an apparent insouciance belies an intimate and academic understanding of their product.
The most accurate imitation of the Parisian model is The Laughing Heart and its new, subterranean ‘cave’ on Hackney Road. Like in Paris, it’s difficult to say on which they place greater emphasis — the food or the wine. Unusually for London it remains open late, which given the introduction of a 24-hour Tube (on selected lines), the majority of operators hope will become more of a norm than an anomaly.
A longstanding hallmark of London’s ‘greatness’ is its diversity. Like New York, the many areas of international specialisms and their intra-city diffusion make the city a fascinating and often surprising place to eat. Journeys, variously, to New Malden for Korean BBQ, Kingsland Road for Vietnamese, Green Lanes for Turkish ocakbaşı, Vauxhall for Portuguese, Edgware Road for Lebanese or Tooting for south Indian, illustrate a Londoner’s ability to metaphorically explore the world within their city limits.
Brexit, by definition, jeopardises London’s multinational complexion and directly threatens one of hospitality’s principal sources of talent. Closing borders limits the infiltration and dissemination of new ideas: in an industry that is relevant only when it is not parochial, Brexit presents an ominous threat to the future wellbeing of our restaurants and (food) culture.
A threat to the revival
The reality today is different to 2009 when — post-crash and mid-recession — rents were low, sites were available and a new, more acute perception of value was sought. New operators had their opportunity to give something a go. Those who wanted to eat well but were guarding their pounds more carefully had new somewheres to go — places where value was in the food, less in the silverware, tablecloths and extraneous ‘details’.
What did we get? Polpo: an affordable, cool Venetian-NYC hybrid; Pollen Street Social: a Ramsay alumnus with energy; Dabbous: a restaurant impossible to get into for the right reasons; and Bubbledogs: a hot dog bar that served grower champagne. Later a street food pit barbecue truck would become the cult opening that London had never had. No reservations, countless queues. The beginnings of social media as a vehicle through which the underbrag could be exercised indiscriminately. Eat, post, hype, repeat. Pulled pork everywhere: all over our faces, all over our feeds and, later, on every single high-street menu in the land. Costa started serving Flat Whites because Antipodean baristas on two-year working visas introduced us to a coffee with a volume and milk:coffee ratio that everyone actually wanted to drink. Values shifted, and their transmission got easier; it had always been this way, but in fashion, in art, in music. This was the first time that “early-adopters” were referred to in the context of food. And perhaps the first significant time that “the mainstream” was behind the curve.
The absence of the very factors which today prohibit the least resourced (often most creative and imaginative) chefs injected the industry with an energy it had not seen since the mid-nineties when St. John and The River Cafe offered an alternative understanding of the meaning of a restaurant. (Who knew that eating out could be fun?!)
The issue of cost and the viability of running a successful business in London is real: steep, rising rents and unprecedented competition means risk. And as the most well-funded operators opt for roll-out concepts in the mid-market (see Hoppers), other bright and innovative chefs are moving out of the city altogether. Three of them — Tom Adams, Tim Spedding and Dan Cox — in the past 18 months have moved to Cornwall.
Meanwhile, the city itself must do all it can to resist the impact of landlords who go safety-first, homogenising would-be restaurant enclaves or co-opting casual dining operators. Honest Burger still do a good job, but without wishing to deny them their success, there’s something seemingly less honest about the brand when they go from two or three sites to 23 because of big wedge from a VC. There’s nothing wrong with growth, but there is a problem when authenticity becomes a ruse.
And on talent, generally, we must ask ourselves this: Where, today, does a chef in London cook if they want to challenge themselves against the ‘best’ in the world? Maybe this isn’t the point. But it still matters to chefs to work where there are Stars and genuinely new ideas. There’s still The Ledbury, just about. The Clove Club, too. And Hedone, if chefs are willing to work in Chiswick. But where else? They’re much more likely leave the country. Two of London’s most prodigious young chefs — Aaron McCreadie and Anna Tobias — recently went, for different reasons, respectively, to Australia and France.
That’s where we are now. As we enter a new phase, the question is: where will we go? Given what happened to the world in 2016, we would prefer to sit tight on predictions. But Eater London will chronicle and critique all subsequent developments in the world of food and restaurants, at the same time ensuring Londoners and visitors are always informed of the best places to eat and drink in the city.