I've just been asked by someone to put forward a list of my favourite new restaurant openings of the last year, so I decided to compile my own list for a blog post. Its amazing to look back and see all the places which seem so established, some flying, some tired, some completely forgotten or almost dead or gone.
For every quietly assured, professional success story there seems to be ten wacky or bold super simple 'concepts' that seemed so fresh and exciting at the time, brimming with confidence and PR froth, now fighting to be remembered, resorting to Groupon style discount offers to fill up mid-week.
In my opinion, for all our supposed 'centre of the world' restaurant scene, London is still often stuck in a carefully orchestrated and controlled sandbox of hugely powerful and deep-pocketed operators sharing a very small stage. And they all have one thing in common, they are pastiches of nostalgic foreign cuisines, created by British teams of highly skilled impersonators. Take London's most popular restaurants*: The Wolesley, The Delaunay, Hawksmoor, Brasserie Zedel, Balthazar and Duck & Waffle, all but one fit this category (the other unsurprisingly popular given its location).
The plucky little independent enterprises that twitter and the bloggers love, the Pitt Cues, The Pizza Pilgrims, the Bone Daddies, all the burger guys, all the posh fried chicken places, they are of course praised (by me included) for their quality, dedication to doing what they do really well, and using slick design, charisma (and hard work) to pull it off. But essentially they too climb onboard the pastiche bus happily. The London restaurant scene owes a lot to the art of imitation. Anyway, so what? Imitation is the highest form of flattery, isn't it?
At first glance this list might seem la bit boring and slightly out-of-date. I've tried hard to resist the temptation to put in all my favourite things from last month, or current white-hot-not-even-open-to-the-minions-yet soft launches, as this is a list from the whole year. I've also tried to make this a list of favourite openings, and not necessarily just about the food.
The food in a restaurant is not even always my favourite bit, as I'm just as interested in the scene, whether a place is cool and talked about or not and who is there. Yes, I am that shallow, but at least I'm honest. So my list tries to reflect places that have made an impact or enriched the restaurant scene, and made it a generally more thrilling thing to be part of.
BalthazarLondon is certainly a town that can 'do' the big pastiche grand cafe just as well as anywhere else in the world, as the real pros Corbin & King have shown us countless times. Covent Garden has the scale, punters and atmosphere to support it.
In a time of supposed austerity, Balthazar's lavish attention to detail, manipulation of our press like puppets, rejection of all things we've come to expect right now, such as the stripped back, scraped out fingerless-gloved Brooklyn backroom feel of things like Polpo and its followers, you could not fail to be impressed by the sheer magnitude of this opening, proving that the restaurant industry is one game that is healthier as ever.
London needs it because: Tourists want the big names.
Clove ClubOne of the nicest bits about it is it is crowd funded (I think, as I do remember the funding request tweets going around) which I think is a particularly pleasant way of restaurant (being a business built on social skills) being created.
Shoreditch town hall is a big old dog, an ugly neo-classical mainly Edwardian building next to a bus stop on the wrong side of Old street. It took a lot of guts to do a restaurant there, so I take my hat of to them.
I've been twice. Genuinely creative, trying new ideas, not reliant on whimsical nostalgia. Serious enough to go on a proper foodie outing, and also chic and atmospheric enough to go on a date.
A note to the staff: If you will take orders by memory, and then cockily roll your eyes when I ask if you're absolutely sure you've remembered all our order, please make sure you have.
London needs it because: Shoreditch needs somewhere serious to escape from the Essex parties eating burgers.
Sushi TestuI have to admit straightaway that I've not even been yet. I've tried to go, I've walked in twice and been politely refused, and I've also tried to book. But that doesn't matter. Because Sushi Tetsu opening is deserved to be on my list anyway, as the token place that has made such an impact that like no other, I dream of the misty evening where I am led inside, hopefully by a mysterious stranger as company, to be taken step by step through a menu of food I know absolutely nothing about.
The tiny room down the alleyway, the non existent availability, the lack of (visible) PR and marketing, all help to create the buzz, mystery and excitement.
It could be crap for all I know, but this is what the restaurant scene is all about. I almost don't want to go, in case I hate it, which will be awful as I won't have the excitement of having Sushi Tetsu to look forward to any more.
London needs it because: The restaurant scene needs myths and legends.
Grain StoreThe current boom in London restaurants has one other little common fact, it is hugely meat led. The idea that you could focus on vegetables without becoming a restaurant for card carrying Ecco shoe wearing folk singing modern parents from Muswell Hill is simply a no no, but this is where Grain Store dares to venture. I firmly believe this will form part of the shift towards places plucking up the courage to offer less meat dependent menus in the next five to ten years.
London needs it because: We eat too much meat, but we don't always want to be vegetarians.
Patty & BunOf all the burger bars to open (admittedly this one was hard due to the scarcity of this rare dish) Patty & Bun has to just pip everyone at the post. I would have put Meat Mission here, as this is the one I've been to far more often, and I love, but that would have been a bit boring and predictable, and the menu and offering is not much different to MeatLiquor, and also I don't love the lighting as much either.
So apart from the use of the word 'patty' in their name, which for some reason makes me cringe, P&B do nothing wrong.
What's wrong with patty? WelI how on earth did this pathetic sounding name end up being given to the very meat in the world's most badass thing to eat? I just think of someone with a little mound of minced beef in their hands, molding it into burger shaped blobs, thinking 'what name could I give to this blob' while they gently pat it with their hands. 'Hmm. I know - patty'.
Patty. Patty. The word just dribbles out of the mouth like the wet kid at school who always has a hurt knee. Try saying 'patty' sounding in any way tough. Try imagining Mr. T saying patty. It simply doesn't work.
Well, Patty & Bun don't try and do the burger rock n roll lifestyle thing, they just stick to the product, which is probably the best in London.
Other great burgers (yes, I've managed to find some) which should be noted are Lucky Chip, The Disco Bistro roller disco one, and the new one from Clapham newbies Dip & Flip, which has singlehandley made a trip over the river just about bearable.
London needs it because: Meatliquor needs competition.
Street FeastDid this start last summer or this summer? I'm not sure but anyway I don't care, it feels like this summer, and the game-changing street food thing is probably London's most exciting single thing to happen in food for a few years. I think it was last summer I went a few times to the Climpson's coffee nights in Hackney when they had the Burnt Enz lot there, plus a few others I can't remember the name of, and that was the first time for me that I experienced this new way of eating out, fresh little companies, doing daring, interesting food, for not much money, sharing tables, and all outside.
Street feast has gone further. Well organised, marketed and always new and interesting, they manage to carve a new marketplace for a Friday night crowd, wanting an alternative to the usual pub/maybe a restaurant/ late bar order of things.
Sure, standing around eating burgers in a dirty disused factory with no roof isn't everyone's cup of tea, and NOBODY likes queuing, but hey, you can't go to The Gavroche every night either. I'm a fan.
London needs it because: Thanks to it, restaurants are not the only way to go out to dinner anymore
Bone DaddiesThis will show my ignorance and naivety but until Bone Daddies I couldn't get excited about Ramen. Wet food. Soup. It wasn't sexy. I remember reading a book about an American guy at university who gets through with no money by eating dried 'ramen noodles' and kind of got it into my head they were a sort of restaurant Pot Noodle, with an egg floating in it.
But Bone Daddies opened and suddenly I got it. I have no idea how authentic it is, but I don't really care, they have a cool sounding name. Bone Daddies. Like some sort of 1950s rockabilly / prehistoric Flintstones lovechild.
It's taken to Soho like a fish to water and I'm happy about that.
London needs it because: American food should not be the only way to eat rock n roll.
Disco Bistro (in various places)I think Carl Clarke and the Disco Bistro team should be congratulated for simply being the most crazy restaurant people in London right now. What they do is not exactly groundbreaking, but they are the equivalent to the really exciting DJ club promoters at Uni, always doing something cool, keeping the party going and never complaining. Their pop-ups and mini restaurants have one thing in common: fun. They make you want to go out on a cold February and eat. That's what being a restaurateur is all about isn't it?
London needs it because: Eating out should be a party sometimes.
TartufoOpened almost completely under the radar, seemingly carefully aimed at a crowd for whom twitter is still a term from a David Attenborough programme, this Chelsea place is not exactly hip (I went with my parents. It's that kind of show) or inventive (no fermented vegetables, casien powder or mosquito fart oil here I'm afraid ) but it's the simple old trick of silk-smooth professional service and flat-out, seduce you from the moment it arrives awesome Italiany food that had me comparing literally everything I ate to it for the next three months.
London needs it because: Sometimes, you just want things to be lovely.
Chez EllesHow can I say anything about this place that hasn't already been said. Never mind the probably even better Casse Croute and its superior cooking, Chez Elles is where you go if you still dream of eye contact with Vincent Cassel in a smoky parisian bar, or secretly want to be in Amelie.
A cute little French bistro slap bang in the middle of the wrong (but used to be the right) end of Brick Lane, decorated with red velvet and imitation flowers, with lovely French dishes served by friendly, eccentric and very cool staff, seemingly with genuine love and affection. And it's the last bit that really shines out. The real people in the know go on Sundays for its suburb brunch, which is quite possibly the only brunch in London with a dessert.
London needs it because: It is the most sexy, fun and gently kitsch restaurant in London. Go on a date.
* Source: Toptable.co.uk