It is the tradition at Eater to end the year with a survey of friends, contributors, rovers of the industry, critics, and professional eaters. This year, the group were asked eight questions, spanning meal of the year to biggest dining grievance. Their answers will appear throughout this week. Responses are related in no particular order; cut and pasted below.
So far, it’s been all the things worth celebrating this year: restaurants we went back to time and again; the best new openings; the best meals; the best restaurant neighbourhoods; and an entire dining scene summed up in one word. Now, it’s the bad stuff, the annoyances, irksome moments and infuriating outings: these are the biggest dining grievances of 2019.
Adam Coghlan, Editor, Eater London: A cocktail of misfortunes — rent, greed, political events — often punishing those who least deserve it, while mediocrity, imagination deficit, and cynicism sustains the movement of capital.
James Hansen, Assistant Editor, Eater London: What Anna said.
What Jonathan said.
What both of those things partly stem from, which is the attitude to, and of restaurant criticism in the U.K. As much as the national critics might be perceived as tastemakers by their readers, they are also working in service of the broader attitude to food media, food writing, and the food world, which is dominated by its perception as a lifestyle pursuit. This preconception neuters restaurant criticism, treating each review as a vacuum of tastemaking, all in the apparent noble endeavour of telling people where to go for their tea, how much it will cost, and in too many cases, that natural wine lists are entirely evil things that sommeliers won’t help diners navigate if things aren’t to their tastes — spoiler, they will! Hospitality!
As London’s restaurant world continues to mature, and discussions about food’s essential politics, consumption, and capitalism get more vocal, the biggest newspapers and most prominent sources of criticism in the country are stuck making anodyne asides about £14 “ham sandwiches” and seasoning reviews with terms like cultural appropriation in a way so facile that it cheapens the real, political structures around food and the systems behind them: the reasons why a sandwich made of Iberico pork in a glossy central London development that sits below empty, extremely expensive apartments might have a lot more to it than “lol, it’s like ham!” — cue the titters from the comments section. National restaurant criticism is fit for its current purpose, as a weekly entertainment column that sells papers, and the critics that produce it are excellent entertainment writers (one aside), but this mode of restaurant criticism is simply not capable of meaningfully engaging with the restaurant culture it purports to critique. This is not the critics’ fault, but that doesn’t make it any less true; all publications — this one included — could be doing better, but the example should come from the top.
In short: London is not yet the truly world-beating restaurant city many think it is, for some reasons outlined below, and for others. In so many ways, it is a wonderful, exciting, restless place to eat, but making progress will require a reckoning of the status quo, who it serves, who it shuts out, and how it can serve those it shuts out better. It will never have a chance of getting there if the British attitude to criticism doesn’t change.
Anna Sulan Masing, food writer and Eater London contributor: Rich restaurateurs’ racist behaviour — conflating entire continents into gimmicks, for financial gain. Lucky Cat I haven’t been to, but the messaging around it was terrible. The Ivy Asia I have been to: bad, bad cooking and decor of excellent craftsmanship that collides different, rich, cultural artistry into spectacle — a crass, careless show of wealth. I am so sick of the lack of nuance and respect for PoC culture. It feeds into a narrative that certain cultures — and therefore the people — are not worth the time and effort to be articulated or to know in detail about, other than what they can do for you: entertainment. My and others’ culture is not your spectacle for your consumption. Food, when filtered through businesses like a restaurant, is part of systems of power, and it’s important and should be easy to recognise that. Food is political, stories are powerful: restaurateurs always need to ask what messages they are putting out into the world. In case it still needs clarifying in 2019, identifying racist behaviour is not calling someone a racist.
Jonathan Nunn, food writer and Eater London contributor: This is a long term grievance but how in thrall to American media we are when we talk about which cuisines should be taken seriously. The focus on Mexican, Korean, southern barbecue and mainland Chinese has context in Los Angeles and New York, not so much in London. This all filters down into the way chefs cook, putting out mediocre versions of things from countries they’ve read about or visited exactly once. This might seem surprising to those who assume my views on cultural appropriation, but I think London would become a better food city if its Turkish, Pakistani, south Indian, Caribbean and west African restaurants, as well as its working class cafes of all stripes, were not siloed but visited by people who could take inspiration from what those chefs are doing, and produce something which credits and respects that heritage. Look at what Black Axe Mangal does. The lack of interaction between London’s diaspora restaurants and its middle-high end is a major point of difference compared to great food cities like Paris and Los Angeles — I’d love to see London’s chefs putting less tacos and baos on the menu and more of their own versions of tantuni and dosa. So next time you want to blow your research budget on a trip to Italy or Asia, how about a trip to Hounslow or south London instead?
Nigel Slater, food writer: Hearing stories of no-shows. It breaks my heart that someone fails to turn up when they’ve booked a table.
Sejal Sukhadwala, food writer and Eater London contributor: Most mainstream restaurants continue to offer boring, unimaginative vegetarian options as an afterthought.
Emma Hughes, freelance food writer and Eater London contributor: Can we retire the words “woke” and “hipster” in relation to food and restaurants, please? Oh, and “virtue signalling.” Zzzzzz.
George Reynolds, food writer and Eater London contributor: What continues to pass for vegan food in London. More often than not, it’s tortured through a vaguely wellness-y lens, and flails around the world in search of inspiration without landing on anything remotely coherent. There’s also a lot of unnecessary complexity in the hands of kitchens that, with the best will in the world, aren’t equipped to handle it. The Superiority Burger cookbook should be compulsory reading over the holidays.
Shekha Vyas, food writer and Eater London contributor: Like 2018, my grievance is still queues and, annoyingly, restaurants touting vegetarian dishes not made with 100 percent vegetarian ingredients.
Hillary Armstrong, food writer and Eater London contributor: Not everything has to be a “party in the mouth.” Sometimes you just want a quiet night in.
Sudi Pigott, food writer and Eater London contributor: Explanations of small plate dining.
Apoorva Sripathi, writer and Eater London contributor: Mushrooms in everything as a veggie/vegan substitute. Oh wait, that’s an extremely personal grievance I guess.
Feroz Gajia, restaurateur and Eater London contributor: People in the food world continuously ranking service and ambience above food. Proudly proclaiming that they will always pick a place that does ok food but where the atmosphere suits them, dining should be the food first, second and third. It’s why London isn’t the world-beating food city it could be, it’s not even top 10. Sure, we have diversity and the PR machine driving the constant cycles of new openings but all that is for nothing when so many meals are just fine and nothing more.
Ed Smith, food writer and Eater London contributor: Probably that I don’t seem to have as much time to dine out as I used to. But that’s self-inflicted.
Josh Barrie, food writer and Eater London contributor: A few places executed their asparagus cookery without due care and love back in spring.
Vaughn Tan, academic and restaurant consultant: That running a restaurant in London is now so expensive that generosity and good humour is the exception, not the rule.
Daisy Meager, food writer and Eater London contributor: “There’s currently a two-hour wait”; “We’ll need your table back in 1.5 hours”; “Let me spend the next ten minutes explaining how this menu works.”
Angela Hui, food writer and Eater London contributor: People really need to stop lumping Asia together — it’s a damn big continent.
Leila Latif, Eater London contributor: Customers complaining of prices at South Asian and African restaurants that they wouldn’t question at their French or Japanese equivalents.
Jonathan Hatchman, food writer and Eater London contributor: Dysfunctional ‘Pan-Asian’ projects from tasteless multi-millionaires and chefs who’ve probably never been east of Edenbridge.