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A Letter to London

After a visit to New York

Food is culture flyer from MOFAD in NYC
| George Reynolds

Dear London,
Well, I’m back. Of course I missed you! But, to be brutally honest, I needed the break, too. We’ve spent so much time together over the past few years that it’s almost like we got stuck in a bit of a rut, you know? It’s not like anything happened happened in New York, but it did make me realise a few things about you, and about us. It may hurt, but this is stuff you need to hear. If I come on strong, it’s only because I care. Drop a beat!

You two aren’t so different, and that’s a bad thing. On my last night in New York I had a quick, barely comfortable dinner of decent small plates and natural wine in a faux-distressed neighbourhood joint with an inscrutable name that was already a proper noun (this time: June). Sound familiar? What The Verge initially diagnosed as Airspace — the sterile, modern aesthetic beloved of third-wave coffee shops and Airbnbs from Tokyo to Copenhagen — has never been more prevalent, or more boring. The internet is ruining food, spreading the same unremarkable rooms and tasteless Instagram sensations worldwide (I finally ate a Dominique Ansel cronut — it was disgusting, like sucking pus from a scab). I don’t know what the solution is. Anything fresh will just be copied and diffused everywhere within months. But I know this: despite just returning from abroad I’ve never been more ready for a change of scene.

You’re not as cool as New York, and that’s a good thing. The Saturday lunchtime Smorgasburg street food gathering just over the bridge from Manhattan is like a State Fair for ephemeral crazes, which is another way of saying it’s flypaper for morons. Ramen burger! Transparent water cake! Or, my personal favourite, a queue 20 people deep for the pleasure of paying five dollars plus for fruit juices served IN AN ACTUAL PIECE OF FRUIT. You don’t currently demonstrate this mania for novelty, but I’ve noticed worrying signs, like bakeries hybridising patisserie, and barbecue bros glopping a charnel house of flesh and skin onto tacos. Chill the eff out! And don’t go the other direction and coat everything in the multiple layers of Lower East Side irony that led me to walk past a gathering of well-dressed people standing outside somewhere called FUNERAL HOME and wonder about its bar snacks. What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold, obviously. But also: not trying to be cool in the first place, just like your parents told you.

Your service sucks. It’s not like it’s even especially bad. But compared with the warmth, knowledge and — yes — humour on display from almost everyone we had the pleasure of meeting in New York, it just sucks. Do better.

You need to speak up more. By my reckoning the last London restaurant that did or said something truly transformative was St John. In New York, you’ve got both Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Superiority Burger truly setting the tone for a global conversation, with Superiority Burger arguably holding two separate conversations at once (about the role of vegetables and the role of fast food). Brooks Headley’s joint is an utter astonishment: the signature is an umami-rich delight, the sides are impeccable (and seasonal!) and the sorbet-gelato cup is three-star fine-dining quality. A big lunch for two was £12 a head. Raise your game, and your voice, please.

You need to care more. There is more history in the average London pub than there is in the entirety of Manhattan, and yet you’re still embarrassed to talk to me about food as something that transcends your dinner plate. Compare this to the tiny, excellent Museum of Food and Drink in Williamsburg, which packs an exhibit on the history of Chinese American food, a Willy Wonka science machine that shows you how common flavours are synthesised, a chef’s tasting table, a fortune cookie machine, and a cute little shop all into a space smaller than the floor at the Wolseley. As a souvenir in the museum shop reminds us in red-font block capitals, FOOD IS CULTURE. Treat it accordingly.

You need to care less. Going to a city sporadically is liberating, because it means you can’t ever really keep pace with the slew of hip new openings. I went to places in New York I’d been storing up for a year or more, and found them full, but not bursting; we always got a table within minutes of arrival. And my guess is that the food was all the better for the kitchen having had a few months to settle. Please stop shitting your proverbial britches in the rush to get to the new, new thing. Learn to savour the institutions, or check in on somewhere you haven’t returned to since it opened in 2015. The good new places won’t go anywhere; and if the bad ones do, who cares?

You’re still the most fun, interesting place to eat and drink on earth. Not necessarily at the same time: you don’t boast anywhere as zero-fucks debauched as Empellón Al Pastor, which hits my dive bar/decent taco joint sweet spot like a shot of mezcal to the cortex. But let’s start with the drinking: your beer’s better; your wine’s better (all the more so for not bowing in grovelling fealty to the Old World, especially France); your cocktails are in a different league. Your food is mongrel, inclusive, and inhabits the middle of the formal-informal spectrum far more convincingly than it does in many other cities — I mean it entirely as a compliment when I say somewhere like Black Axe Mangal couldn’t exist anywhere else on the planet. You’ll be just fine in the long term, particularly if you embrace BAM’s winning approach of caring about what matters and not sweating one iota of the small stuff. Just promise to chill with the burger places, OK?

If you need me I’ll be recovering with a kale salad and a coconut water,