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A diner sits over a plate of pasta, holding a fork, with salad to its left. Everything is on white plates, with white tablecloths, and a half-drunk glass of red wine sits in the centre.
The resumption of indoor dining came in May, in a turbulent year for restaurants.
Michaêl Protin

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The Biggest London Restaurant Stories of the Year (And 11 You May Have Missed)

The food news that caught people’s attention in 2021 oscillated between the impact of Covid-19 and any available relief from that topic

Perhaps the best way to describe the early part of 2021 is the same way we came to remember the vast majority of 2020: a time of shock, crisis, uncertainty, and survival. But since the spring, the London restaurant industry slowly began to recover from those crises of the previous 12 months, learning lessons, adapting to a new reality, learning to take government advice with a pinch of salt, and holding onto the support systems offered to them.

And because of the appetite of Londoners to get back out after lockdown, restaurants have been on an upward trajectory ever since; boosted by the take-up and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and the confidence those protections have instilled in a majority across the capital.

And while the year will end in a state of relative uncertainty once more, with high case numbers and the prevalence of the Omicron variant meaning staff absence and group booking cancellations, the likelihood is that London restaurants will reflect the second half of 2021 “better than expected.”

Restaurants are in agreement that there’s still a way to go — the beginning of 2022 is, right now, going to present a series of new challenges and uncertainties for businesses and workers increasingly accustomed to both.

But until then, let’s take a look back at the biggest stories of the year — dominated of course by COVID-19, but with plenty of space for Salt Bae, Great British Bake Off, cookbook plagiarism, fried chicken, bald heads, and, against all odds in this year of all years, Frankie and Benny’s.

Thank you for reading this year and we hope you carry on doing for many more to come. —Adam Coghlan

10. Fried Chicken Juggernaut Popeyes Sets Eyes on First U.K. Restaurant

The service counter at Popeyes’ new London restaurant
Popeyes opened in London in November 2021.
Michaël Protin

Had this story been written before mid-2019, it would have been something of an outlier: a popular fried chicken brand making a move across the Atlantic. But that was before possibly the biggest fast food poptimism explosion of recent times, centred on the Popeyes fried chicken sandwich.

And had this story been written before early 2021, it would still have been an outlier: a now even more popular fried chicken brand making a move across the Atlantic. But thanks to the twin forces of Brexit and Covid-19 — themselves looming over every U.K. food story this year — an American fast food land grab is fully in session, and Popeyes is the front-runner.

9. Salt Bae Is Making Londoners So Thirsty They’re Reviewing His Restaurant Before It Has Opened

Every so often, the restaurant world witnesses phenomena that its experts cannot duly explain. Such was true of London restaurant critics and Nusret Gökce, better known as Salt Bae, in one of the longest-running opening sagas in the city in recent times. The hype was so intense that impatient fans and foes alike plastered the restaurant with reviews before it even opened; reviews whose very existence, let alone content, better explained the sprinkly one than any write-up come opening night.

8. Surveillance Shopping Arrives in London as Amazon Go Heads for Ealing Broadway

Re-opening Continues Across Densely Populated New York And New Jersey Areas Noam Galai/Getty Images

A good deal of trends accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic rested on reduced contact and connection — even as it became clear that fomite (surface) transmission was far from critical to the virus’s spread. But one that likely would have happened regardless is supermarket shopping as frictionless as Jeff Bezos’s shiny head, which made its U.K. debut in London this year.

7. More Lockdown Leaks Leave Restaurants Further Mired in Uncertainty

St John Bread and Wine sits closed in Spitalfields during the coronavirus lockdown in London
Restaurants spent the early part of 2021 beset by uncertainty.
Michaël Protin

Uncertainty defined the first six months of 2021 for restaurants even moreso than it did in 2020. Haphazard policy making coupled with a propensity to leak that policy making in order to find what out people thought of it left them consistently on the back foot, unable to make meaningful plans for fear they would be scuppered by the next lobby journalist to tweet something out.

6. Everything You Need to Know About Great British Bake Off 2021

Great British Bake Off might have finally shed its sheen of coziness in 2020, but that was never going to stop viewers from flocking back to the tent and its denizens come 2021. A series once again marked by controversy, baking drama, and the persistence of Paul Hollywood’s sweaty palm left some fans hopeful for change come next year: now all they can do is wait and see.

5. Salt Bae Will Sprinkle Himself All Over London as Soon as Restaurants Reopen

Salt Bae lovingly holding a chopping board topped with a steak, while wearing a suit, tie, and sunglasses
Mr Bae.
Jean Schwarzwalder

Back to Mr Gökce, in an illustration of how Salt Bae’s infinite reproducibility creates an economy of its own. Looking back, the most telling thing about this story is that Mr Bae withdrew from the proposed 17 May opening date very quickly indeed, and did not open the restaurant until September, hype swelling around him.

4. London Chef Elizabeth Haigh’s Cookbook Withdrawn After Plagiarism Allegations

Makan was billed as something of a culmination of Elizabeth Haigh’s ascent, first being head chef at Hackney restaurant Pidgin when it earned a Michelin star, and then for her own interpretation of a Singaporean kopitiam at Mei Mei, in Borough Market, which earned a pair of glowing reviews for a cuisine underrepresented in the city and was one of Eater London’s most impressive newcomers of 2019. But the lasting legacy of Makan will likely be the discussion it has stoked about the genealogy of recipes and the responsibilities and pressures of cultural representation in the cookbook world, which prizes memories and personal anecdotes as the premier currency of legitimacy.

3. Restaurants and Pubs Can Reopen Outdoors From 12 April

A couple decide on their order while dining outside in London
The resumption of outdoor dining was one of few reliable milestones for restaurants this year.
Ejatu Shaw

The list of dates, plans, and strategies the government kept to during the Covid-19 pandemic is slim, in part because of inherent uncertainty, in part because of inherent incompetence. But 12 April, harbouring the resumption of outdoor dining and the start of a long, dicey road back to restaurants, was one that did actually stick.

2. Oh My God, They Killed Benny!

A confession: no-one really expected a story about a middling Italian-American chain cutting its name in half in service of “modernisation” to absolutely pop. But pop, it did.

1. Inevitable Lockdown Roadmap Leak Claims Restaurants and Pubs Will Reopen in May

And to round things off, a signal tale of the last two years. It has it all: Covid-19; government ineptitude; near unbearable uncertainty for restaurants; and a small promise of hope in reopening. No wonder it takes top spot.

11 Stories from 2021 You May Have Missed

A COVID-19 molecule hits and cracks a dining plate, cracking it in the shape of the United Kingdom, while a yellow star representing the EU hangs above, waiting to have its own impact
After COVID-19, Brexit.
Ellie Foreman-Peck

From One Crisis to Another

by Lisa Haseldine

A closeup of a chef adding parsley stalks to the duck legs, water, vegetables, and herbs. They are green against the brown meat.
Gumbo by Decatur at Quality Wines.
Michaël Protin

Gumbo Is Infinity

— by James Hansen, with photography by Michaël Protin

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in restaurants, disproportionately impacting women.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in restaurants, disproportionately impacting women.
Heedayah Lockman

As a Woman in the Kitchen, It’s Traumatic

by Ailis Brenan

Ciao Bella is a restaurant that has always transported its guests to an idea of the Mediterranean — in bright colours
Ciao Bella is a restaurant that has always transported its guests to an idea of the Mediterranean.
Israel Kujore

You Always Return to Ciao Bella

by Sean Wyer

The Latin Village in Seven Sisters will not be replaced by a housing development after a long-fought community battle
Action groups fought and won in a battle to save the Latin Village in Seven Sisters
Artwork by Tiffany Brice for Eater; Photography by Alex Kurunis/Mario Washington.

A 15-Year Fight to Save London’s Latin Village Came to an End. And the Community Won.

by Jacobo Belilty and Kieran Kirkwood

Chinatown London has reopened after coronavirus lockdown, with schemes like outdoor dining permits from Westminster council and the government’s Eat Out to Help Out discount giving the area an economic boost.
The beginning of 2021 presented a unique set of challenges for restaurants in Chinatown
Michaël Protin/Eater London

London’s Chinatown Is on Borrowed Time

by Angela Hui

Chefs work in an open kitchen.
The Dirik brothers reinvented Mangal 2, a cult London restaurant, in the middle of the pandemic.
Michaël Protin

Reinventing a Cult London Restaurant in the Middle of a Pandemic

by Adam Coghlan

Four customers tuck into a meal at at table inside Silk Road in Camberwell
Customers tuck into a meal at Silk Road in Camberwell in May 2021
Ejatu Shaw/Eater London

Reservations and Relief as London’s Restaurants Reopen Their Dining Rooms, Again

by Adam Coghlan, with photography by Ejatu Shaw

Three restaurant tickets on a metal rail, with a takeaway cup in the foreground.
The morning rush at London’s best new cafe of 2021.
Michaël Protin

The Morning Rush

by James Hansen, with photography by Michaël Protin

Waiters at Brutto stand around a dining table in a circle, being briefed by owner Russell Norman and general manager Monique Williams.
Waiters at Brutto receiving their orders before service

Ugly But Good

by James Hansen, with photography by Michaël Protin

Ash plantain is added to lamprais
Unwrapping the art of lamprais in East Croydon
Michaël Protin

Unwrapping the Art of Sri Lankan Lamprais in East Croydon

by Ashanti Omkar, with photography by Michaël Protin