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The service counter at Popeyes’ new London restaurant
The queue at Popeyes’s first London restaurant.
Michaël Protin

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The Biggest London Restaurant Surprises in 2021

Popeyes being good, Salt Bae discourse, and the hype surrounding Sessions Arts Club

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 2021, the group were asked 13 questions, covering the best meals and the worst tweets alongside 2022 predictions and restaurant standbys. Their answers will appear throughout this week, with responses relayed in no particular order; cut and pasted below.

So far, Year in Eater has covered best newcomers, restaurant standbys, best meals, restaurant openings to watch in 2022, best and worst food moments of 2021, and the best and worst food tweets of the year. Now, it’s time for restaurant surprises.

Adam Coghlan, Editor, Eater London: Sessions Arts Club being as good as it was / is. That more restaurants didn’t close; that meal kits were a complete stop-gap. And Just how much people do like going out to restaurants in London really hit home post July “freedom day” — as our American friends, might say, “huh.”

James Hansen, Associate Editor, Eater London: In truth, I was expecting a lot more closures. Maybe this is rose-tinted, but there have been enough examples to make it feel like hype is gaining a closer relationship to substance. And, the Times restaurant critic Giles Coren still being employed after revelling in the death of young journalist Dawn Foster. Wait: this is surprises, sorry.

Anna Sulan Masing, food writer and Eater London contributor: Lighthaus! Discovered just when they re-opened, on a walk with my dog; Alex Vines was just cooking there (which if I had known, I’d have been less surprised.) Not what I was expecting as I walked from the marshes then across the industrial estate... All food is great, but the salads are just *so* good.

Jonathan Nunn, food writer and Eater London contributor: I really hate to say it because it’s such basic bitch territory, but how good the Popeye’s chicken sandwich was for £4.95. Made a mockery of all those bougie £15 chicken sandwich joints with stupid chicken based puns in their name. Still, it’s not worth going to Westfield for ─ just wait until they roll it out.

Bibi being so much more thoughtful and enjoyable than the Mayfair bait it could have so easily been. The lahmacun at Bebek Baklava.

Planque by rights should just be a hideout for bankers too self-aware to be spotted in St. James, but Seb Myers’s food grounds it in a Parisian mode that tons of other London restaurants try and fail to copy. It feels like the only restaurant in London that could actually work in Paris as well.

Also, I thought I would hate everything about Sessions Arts Club given the hype and the endless discussion about “oh you must see the room.” but it’s infuriatingly good.

Chris Cotonou, writer and Eater London contributor: The seitan gyros from the hip Smashing Plates. It goes against everything instilled within me as someone with Greek Cypriot roots, but has become a great meat alternative. I also didn’t expect to love the Oeuf en Gelée at the new Maison François as much as I did. Cult merch brand Novel Mart has done a collection of t-shirts with the Jermyn Street restaurant. And there’s an Oeuf en Gelée one for admirers like myself.

Sejal Sukhadwala, food writer and Eater London contributor: Well, sixteen smart or upscale Indian restaurants opened in London within a period of about six months which — particularly during a pandemic — is truly astonishing.

Emma Hughes, writer and Eater London contributor: That Pophams’ Marmite, Schlossberger and spring onion swirl was actually worth standing in a 20-minute queue for.

George Reynolds, writer and Eater London contributor: That creating a hostile environment for almost any kind of European labour would lead, in time, to a historic shortage of staff in a hospitality sector that has historically significantly relied on European labour. Oh, wait.

Feroz Gajia, restaurateur and Eater London contributor: Marugame Udon not being terrible, Popeye’s being as good as it is, the Michelin awards, the complete lack of accountability in the restaurant industry or the newly anointed gods of London food. Take your pick.

Daisy Meager, food writer and Eater London contributor: Just how much discourse could be squeezed out of Salt Bae’s restaurant.

Sean Wyer, writer, researcher and Eater London contributor: The vegan version of the Greggs sausage bean and cheese melt is actually quite nice.

Ed Cumming, writer and restaurant critic: Pleasantly surprised to see resurgence of bars in central, drawn by (slightly) lower rents. Generally impressed by resilience in face of all the crap.

Angela Hui, food writer and Eater London contributor: Definitely the Elizabeth Haigh/Makan plagiarism and it just seemed to snowball with more people coming forward. I feel very angry and disappointed by the whole thing, but I am very glad that Sharon Wee’s Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen is getting the recognition it deserves and is being reprinted.

David Jay Paw, food writer and Eater London contributor: After a month in Canada, with strict mandates requiring proof of vaccination for dine-in, the relative ‘normality’ of being able to visit restaurants without proof or masks felt almost surreal.

Lucas Oakley, food writer and Eater London contributor: Kudu Grill. I wasn’t a massive fan of Kudu but was really taken by surprise at how great Kudu Grill was. The vibe is on point (very New York, I’ve been told by people who have actually been to the Big Apple) and the food was consistently delicious.

Shekha Vyas, food writer and Eater London contributor: That Jai Durga Mahal, a tiny restaurant which claims to specialise in South Indian, North Indian, Desi Chinese, East African Gujarati and pizza (obviously) is actually very good and has the best chilli paneer I have eaten in London. Also, how many days the huge queues for Popeye’s and Wendy’s lasted; it seemed endless at the time.

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