Lisa Markwell is the former Editor of the Independent on Sunday. In addition she has spent the last seven years as the newspaper’s restaurant critic and food writer, working closely with chefs and restaurateurs in London. She currently works with the Sustainable Restaurant Association, the Code consultancy and The Tomorrow Project to promote best practice and good connections in the capital’s hospitality trade.
London boasts the most varied, eclectic, vital restaurant scene of any global city. But hazards lie ahead.
There they are, queuing patiently outside the brand new no-reservations joint, faces illuminated by the glow of their iPhones. For them, dining out is as much about photographing the blood cake with soy-cured egg yolk as about seeing their friends. A few streets away, in an establishment that has enjoyed more than 200 years of popularity, a fourth generation of the same family to have dined at the same table is murmuring in quiet delight at the perfectly cooked lemon sole.
Enthrallingly new or happily familiar, London’s restaurants are currently enjoying a boom time. The city’s reputation for food stands above those of New York and Paris. According to Adam Hyman, who runs the Code hospitality news forum, America’s cities may have better nightlife and Tokyo fresher ingredients, but London “has so much diversity; it’s culturally rich and is still a financial centre. 10 years ago the food wasn’t great but it has upped its game: restaurant tourism to London is on the rise”.
London’s Hawksmoor steak group was handpicked to be in the new World Trade Center complex in Manhattan, while (travelling in the other direction) the Parisian hot spot Frenchie recently opened to acclaim in Covent Garden. One way or another, London seems to be at the centre of things.
That said, we can hardly afford to be complacent: last year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants included as many entries for Lima as for London. Still, Michelin’s Bib Gourmands, celebrating great food at moderate prices, are arguably a better reflection of a city’s success – and London achieved five new entries in 2015. Meanwhile, openings in the capital are so frequent that those whose job it is to write about the hospitality trade have difficulty keeping up.
We are dining out in numbers. But do more restaurants mean more good restaurants? Is a boom time synonymous with a golden age? And is the current scene sustainable?
New kids, new block
That there is a new generation of celebrity London cooks and restaurateurs is undeniable. Many of them have risen to prominence through social media. The owner of a cake-shop called Crumbs and Dollies, Jemma Wilson, has almost 700,000 subscribers to her YouTube channel. Ms Marmite Lover, a blogger and the instigator of supper clubs and pop-ups, has 19,500 Twitter followers. The Hemsley + Hemsley sisters, who sold more than 150,000 copies of their healthy eating book and have a Twitter following of nearly 51,000, have just opened a café in Selfridges.
These new food celebrities represent a generational shift, and this has come in tandem with something of a geographical shift, as young Londoners have been driven by rising rents away from the centre. Hip new openings are seen now in areas such as Stoke Newington and East Dulwich, Woodford and Shepherds Bush. The customers, in the only rental properties they can afford, are right there.
The Evening Standard Restaurant Awards in June had The Woodford, named for its location, on its shortlist for Restaurant of the Year, while Mikael Jonsson at Hedone in Chiswick has a Michelin star. Many talented chefs are doing vibrant food in what, a decade ago, would have been unexpected places: Jane Atly at The Begging Bowl in East Dulwich, or Will Bowlby and Rik Campbell at Kricket in Brixton.
Meanwhile, rising rents in the centre are leading to the departure from the West End of some established names: Phil Howard is closing his Michelin-starred The Square, a Mayfair fixture for 25 years; Peter Gordon has closed his Seven Dials venue Kopapa; other leading restaurateurs are known to be wondering if now is a good time to make the jump and try something new, rather than stay put for the next rent rise. All of which may be good for the wider city but poses a threat to the identity of the centre, especially given the fact that an undercurrent of fear about terrorism means the tourism trade is not as effervescent as it might be.
The restaurateurs who are continuing to make a success of central London tend to address both the formal and the fast audiences. The Sethi family has Trishna and Gymkhana, for example, two high-end Indian restaurants; but they have more recently opened Bao, a Taiwanese café with permanent queues outside, and Hopper’s, a Sri Lankan diner in Soho. Richard Caring has taken the venerable theatreland institution The Ivy and scattered little Ivy-ettes in Chelsea, Marylebone and (soon) Wimbledon. Corbin and King, previous owners of The Ivy and The Caprice, have created the see-and-be-seen-in Wolseley but also expanded into budget food with Brasserie Zédel and moved out of the West End to Islington. And the Hart brothers oversee both Soho legend Quo Vadis and Barrafina, the no-booking Spanish restaurants where, many of London’s critics argue, you can currently find the best food in town.
Struggling for staff
Aside from rents and the difficulty of making money in the centre of town, the big challenge for London’s restaurants is finding and keeping staff. The top chefs know their worth and want to spend enough time out of their kitchens to do books and TV, but struggle to build a really good, regular team beneath them – and a kitchen is only as good as its kitchen porter.
In the junior ranks, it is hard to live on restaurant pay in London. Given the very long hours, it is also hard to commute. Some argue that the unfortunate consequence of this is that sous chefs are moving up too soon before they are really ready. The costs of living in London also threaten the diversity of the intake: hospitality can be a profitable career, but it requires extensive hands-on training and, meanwhile, young chefs have to survive. It would be unfortunate if only middle-class Londoners with parental support could afford to learn to cook in the capital’s best restaurants.
At least one chef, Dan Doherty of Duck & Waffle, is doing something to address this problem with a project called Chefs of Tomorrow, a networking organisation that aims to encourage young people into the restaurant trade and up the ranks by connecting them with others. “I’ve always thought it important to be allowed to make mistakes, take risks and learn. But working in a restaurant environment can sometimes inhibit that; I wanted to create a platform for them to see how to run a place.”
Avocados and nudity
So there are significant risks to London’s continued global reputation as a restaurant capital. Yet the city remains so diverse, energetic and creative that it’s sometimes hard to believe it. Innovations abound: restaurateurs are trying out their dishes in pop-ups and at the Saturday lunchtime food markets in Druid Street and Maltby Street, under the railway arches in Bermondsey. Former Masterchef contestant Andy Oliver ran his Thai pop-up Som Saa for a year in London Fields before crowdfunding a permanent home in Spitalfields.
Some of the new departures and experiments are eccentric and seem unlikely to be long-term propositions: we are imminently promised an avocado-only restaurant in London, as well as Bunyadi, a secret-location food experience due to open this summer where diners will eat naked (although having said that, it apparently already has a registered interest list of 30,000 names).
Rents and problems of staff retention notwithstanding, the capital is currently oversupplied with restaurants. This creates the third big difficulty for restaurateurs in the capital: no-shows. Last year, the Clove Club in Shoreditch introduced a pre-paying system to stop people booking then not arriving, causing a flurry of interest from rivals, although no one else has yet adopted it. With so many restaurants vying for trade, putting up any barrier is seen as tricky.
So London’s restaurants are under stress, but there are still plenty of them and they also have an irrepressible energy. And so do their clientele. By queuing up, Instagramming our dinner, sharing news of the hot new places on social media, Londoners are more broadly engaged in promoting a trade that is part of the capital’s lifeblood than we have ever been before.
As befits the world’s most diverse city, that trade is as varied, daring and heterogeneous as any on the planet. In late April, Fay Maschler, who has reviewed London restaurants for the Evening Standard since 1972, observed: “In the past 48 hours I have been to eat superb steak at The Guinea Grill, a Young’s pub since 1888, cherished by American visitors as well as Mayfair locals; nigiri and maki sushi at the seven-seat Sushi Tetsu in Jerusalem Passage, Clerkenwell, where the pursuit of the art of perfection by chef Toru Takahashi and his wife Harumi brings to mind the seminal film Jiro Dreams of Sushi – but with intrinsic added lightheartedness; lunch with my daughter-in-law at the markedly successfully facelifted legendary Ivy; Vietnamese food offered by five siblings cooking according to their grandmother’s recipes in perky Peckham. I am about to set out for Borough Market where the newly opened Padella sells eight types of pasta handmade each morning and it is possible to eat and drink for £15 a head. Where am I? London. I couldn’t be anywhere else.”