It is the tradition at Eater to end the year with a survey of friends, contributors, rovers of the industry, and professional eaters. Even a year like this one. For 2020, the group were asked 13 questions, covering the best meals and the worst tweets alongside community responses, and coronavirus pivots. Their answers will appear throughout this week, with responses related in no particular order; cut and pasted below.
Having surveyed the best meals, the best delivery, the most memorable moments, the proudest pivots, the saddest closures, the most exciting returns to look forward to, the most promising newcomers, the community stars, the tweets, and hopes for the restaurant world, it’s time to ask what people think should happen in restaurants in 2021.
Adam Coghlan, Editor, Eater London: The London “restaurant industry” — as a created concept, not the thousands of very different businesses from which it is necessarily comprised — needs to interrogate the idea of “progress” in order to recover from its most difficult year. Only then is it likely to move forward. Answers may be found if restaurants ask themselves honestly: Who and what purpose do we serve?
James Hansen, Associate Editor, Eater London: I think the last few months of 2020 have shown that there is something of a stylistic template emerging that works and primarily involves adaptation, meeting local need while adding enough creative want to keep customers returning. More broadly, it’s worth considering that many, many restaurants in the city — often outside the centre and zones 1 and 2 — didn’t need to adapt at all, because they had already geared their operations this way. So if the London restaurant world is to adapt further in 2021, it’s also going to need to ask why it wasn’t meeting local needs before — what forces are guiding that choice and how can they be counterbalanced? Then, to push away from the old themes that hang over these places — overly long shifts, overly low pay, complacency on inequality and abuse in kitchens because workers fear losing jobs by speaking up, and the warped view of what passes for “sustainability” from a restaurant perspective.
None of this can happen, however, without an assessment of how this affects all the moving parts that go into restaurants, whose inadequacy by design has been fully thrown up by COVID-19. The city’s labour and property markets, the city’s flows of money, all fundamentally shape the restaurant world, and they are all currently deeply unequal. For the London restaurant world to go anywhere, change has to happen much higher up.
Anna Sulan Masing, food writer and Eater London contributor: Service, not FoH, but the service of people — the staff, the guests. ‘What is the point of your establishment?’ needs to be asked. The best pivots have been people who have really understood who they are and what they offer, to their community.
Jonathan Nunn, food writer and Eater London contributor: When the crash happened in 2008, the restaurant industry rebuilt and diversified around the idea of comfort food ─ there was the burger boom, American barbecue, hot dogs, diner food, a shocking 1000% increase in places serving fresh pasta. The street food space quickly blossomed and corporatised. That has led, in many cases, to a new kind of homogeneity that is as restrictive as the pre-2008 era. Ideally I’d like restaurants ─ and this means everything from a stall in a Wembley mini-mall up to a restaurant in Soho ─ really consider what their local customers might actually need and then make it in a way that is imaginative and economically viable, without simply pandering to the lowest common denominator. That is obviously a much more difficult task than it sounds on paper, but I can point you to those who have done it this year ─ 40 Maltby Street, Bake Street, Cafe Deco, Singburi, Pho Thuy Tay, Kaieteur Kitchen, Sonora, ASAP Pizza. If the idea of the local restaurant, trying to capture a unique customer base, prevails over the destination restaurant all trying to capture the same customer base, then I think the next few years will be an exciting time to eat out.
Sejal Sukhadwala, food writer and Eater London contributor: Cook simpler, more comforting, more affordable food; this is not the time for drizzles and foams and manicured plates. Even fashion designers are currently doing away with frills and glitter, focusing instead on pyjamas and leisure wear — so why do chefs keep flexing their egos with elaborate tasting menus instead of straightforward, nourishing dishes?
Shekha Vyas, food writer and Eaten London contributor: As above, there was a lot of innovation this year. I would be interested to know where this goes. I think collaborations are probably going to be quite big.
Feroz Gajia, restaurateur and Eater London contributor: Hospitality as an industry needs to face two big issues, representation and business model correction. We need better inclusive representation within the industry at all levels and have representation at the governmental level. That seems simple compared to restructuring the underlying business models of restaurants in this city. Are food establishments shops/entertainment/public spaces, what is a realistic model to create a sustainable business under each of these guises.
Vaughn Tan, author, pizza fan, and grouch: More small-footprint, small-headcount, independent, owner-operated neighbourhood restaurants not backed by big money and outside so-called prime London.
Ed Cumming, writer and restaurant critic: Useful as the delivery services have been this year, I’d like everyone to acknowledge that the only foods that really travel are curry and pizza.
Gemma Croffie, writer and Eater London contributor: The industry needs to rethink completely what it means to be a restaurant, — the root of the word is to restore — so many of them are built on shaky foundations of cheap labour and slim margins often in abusive or at the very least gruelling environments. Maybe it is pie in the sky thinking, but I would like to see a more equitable, fairly compensated industry with a focus on sustainability and being climate forward, a good start would be some kind of required HR function in restaurants provided by a suitably trained individual or individuals.
Daisy Meager, food writer and Eater London contributor: Making sustainability as much about looking after the people that work there as the provenance of ingredients etc. A lot of restaurants do this already but it needs to become commonplace, especially within big chains where employees have little to no protection.
Angela Hui, food writer and Eater London contributor: Overthrow the corporate overlords! Abolish landlords! Complete rent control! Down with business rates! No more scapegoating hospitality!
David J Paw, food writer and Eater London contributor: Hard to point in one single direction for what is a very diverse collection of businesses, but I’m hopeful that whichever way it goes, true inclusivity is front of mind, as are the basic rights and living standards of its workforce.