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Why London's Restaurants Aren't As Exciting As New York's

How Russell Norman, one of London's most NYC-influenced operators, sees the two cities in 2017

Russell Norman’s London restaurants — Polpo, Polpetto and Spuntino — are heavily influenced by NYC
Stuart Matthews

London or New York? For the launch of Eater London, writers discuss which is the better food city.

I am frequently asked about the difference between the dining scenes in London and New York. There is no neat equation to answer that question, I’m afraid. Both cities are changing and developing at such a pace that it’s often hard to keep up. It isn’t a simple case of one place being better than the other, and it irks me when people make those binary judgments.

I was in New York last year when the Major Food Group (the firm behind Dirty French, Carbone, Sadelle’s and Santina) opened a Williamsburg outpost of their celebrated Manhattan Italian restaurant Parm. The excitement that surrounded the opening was palpable even to me, an outsider, and that fever pitch of anticipation is in no way uncommon.

Eight years ago, when I was spending a lot of time in NYC researching Polpo and Spuntino, Keith McNally (“the man who invented Downtown” according to The New York Times) opened Minetta Tavern, a lovingly crafted reinvention of a Greenwich Village inn. The whole of Manhattan was talking about it for months before, during and after its opening. The scrum for tables was frenetic and, several years on, it is still impossible to get anything other than a 5.30pm or 11pm reservation.

(I remember the hype surrounding Graydon Carter’s West Village hit The Waverly Inn was of a similar ferocity when it opened in 2006. This was no doubt helped by the fact that the reservations system was chaotic, the telephone number didn’t work, and no one could get a table. No one, that is, apart from Carter’s friends. So while Madonna, Jay-Z, Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld tucked into mac ’n’ cheese with white truffles, the rest of New York publicly slagged it off and privately, desperately, tried to get a booking.)

I used to think that this intense interest in openings was unique to New York. Certainly the way that certain restaurants are flavour of the month is a Stateside phenomenon, as is the boom and bust nature of some places. In fact, the outpost of Parm I mentioned at the start of this piece has already closed, allegedly for ‘refurbishment’, but shows no signs of reopening. New Yorkers are so fickle...

Russell Norman in Williamsburg last year
Tara Donne

Back in London, we have witnessed an unprecedented wave of restaurant openings in the past few years — virtually all excellent, remarkably. Even more remarkable were the New York-style levels of interest. A couple of good reviews, multiple blog mentions and intelligent PR campaigns have made smash hits of Bao, Kricket, Clipstone, Jikoni, Padella and El Pastor virtually overnight.

It is easy to see what these places have in common and why they appeal: they are all small, independent and great value. That the food is first-class is kind of incidental. Additionally, sure, we have the big, NYC-style, celebrity-magnet openings like Chiltern Firehouse and Sexy Fish, but the majority of openings that feel like events are at the folksy, focused and specialised end of the spectrum.

In New York, the physical make-up of the city means that there are many more neighbourhood restaurants operating for their loyal, local catchments. Small apartments with tiny or non-existent kitchens mean that dining out is more deeply ingrained in a New Yorker’s way of life. In London, we tended, in the past, to go out to a restaurant for a special occasion. That’s no longer the case, and it is not unusual to meet young people of modest income who dine out two or three times a week. When a fantastic meal at Kiln costs the same as a takeaway pizza and a few beers, who wouldn’t?

The Big Apple still feels more vibrant. I’m afraid this will always be the case, as long as we London operators have to negotiate with traditional landlords and terrified local authorities. Landlords can sometimes be an unimaginative bunch, simply wanting to collect rent from reliable tenants. So you end up with second-division high street chains in places where, frankly, they shouldn’t be. Westminster Council has a rigid policy of granting absolutely no new restaurant planning consents, and making existing businesses jump through hoops to do the most basic licensable things, such as serving a drink without food. With these parochial, nanny state constraints, London will struggle ever to be as genuinely urban, cosmopolitan or exciting as New York.

What is particularly pleasing about our two cities in 2017 is the way they cross-fertilise. We have Balthazar in Covent Garden, multiple Shake Shacks, Daniel Boulud in Knightsbridge, collaborations between Will Ricker and Serge Becker, and thrilling pop-ups such as Dan Barber at Selfridges. And, at the end of this year, London's Hawksmoor will open in New York's World Trade Centre. One thing is certain with that combination: the steaks will be high.