When it comes to eating out, we’ve never had it so good. The UK dining scene in 2017 is diverse, accessible and endlessly interesting; a constant carousel of bright lights and shiny new attractions. Calendars are stuffed with soft launches and Instagram feeds overflow with the latest hot-right-now food shot: XO linguine at The Other Naughty Piglet, cacio e pepe at Padella, a glass of Whispering Angel rosé on the rooftop of The Ned. So how do restaurants keep their head above all the commotion and stay open much longer than ten minutes? And how are the old-timers still setting the table for service every night?
When Australian real estate mogul Tim Gurner suggested young people couldn’t afford to get a foot on the property ladder because of an irresponsible propensity for avocado brunches, just about everyone was up in arms. And whilst you can’t blame a generation’s problems on the humble superfruit, he did touch upon a kernel of truth. As Merlin Labron-Johnson of Portland and Clipstone puts it, “Young people can no longer afford to buy houses and get a mortgage so they’re spending their money on food instead; on going out and enjoying themselves.” Add to that long working hours and smaller flats where it’s difficult to entertain, you can see how the landscape for eating out has been upturned.
As our appetite for dining out grows keener (and our inner food critic is unleashed), it’s important to acknowledge the part pop-up culture and the street food trade has played in this evolution. In recent years our exposure to different cuisines – West African, Himalayan, Burmese, Taiwanese – has exploded. You only need look at what Adam Rawson, YBF chef of the year in 2015, has been doing over the past six months to chart the dizzying speed at which things are moving: a 12-course Japanese pop up here, a ramen residency there, a brief appearance at Brixton Beach Boulevard and now bite-sized burgers in Holborn. Young faces like these are propelling change, pushing the industry forward at an unprecedented pace and taking our appetite with it.
But then how do the old timers still have people walking through their door every evening? Lawrence Hartley and Tim Healy of West End institution, Joe Allen, believe there will always be a place for more comfortable, less trendy options.
“It’s like young ladies walking around in Jimmy Choos in pain and really they’re just desperate to walk around in Birkenstocks and be comfortable,” says Hartley. “You want to come to Joe’s, undo your belt and have a burger. We’re the Birkenstocks of the restaurant world”. Reliable and comfortable.
Right now, Joe Allen is at an interesting crossroads in its history. Having occupied the same dimly lit basement on Exeter Street since opening in 1977, July will see the restaurant serve its final covers before moving to a new site on Burleigh Street, thanks to a hotel development from Robert de Niro. They could have chosen to reinvent themselves, but then again, the magic of Joe Allen is in its history. “It’s in the walls, the people, the customers,” says Healy. “Which is why we’re taking so much of it with us. Yes, it’s a chance to uplift the offering and we’re looking to do that, but we’ll be taking as much of our history with us as possible.”
But both restaurateurs recognise, more than ever, you can’t rest on your laurels. In the five years under Hartley and Healy’s ownership, competition has been pressing in on all sides. Keith McNally imported Balthazar, The Ivy Market Grill has opened, Cicchetti, Café Murano, Bodean’s have all arrived. All within a stone’s throw of Joe Allen. “Competition is good,” says Tim, “It makes you clever”. But they believe there’s still very much a place for a dependable classic.
It’s not only Hartley and Healy that believe in the strength of tradition. When Ottolenghi chose his favourite restaurant for an Observer Food Monthly feature, he picked El Parador in Mornington Crescent. “There’s nothing flash about the place by any stretch of the imagination; it’s just a great family-run neighbourhood joint that serves really decent food. Perhaps that’s what I love most about it – it’s all so wonderfully predictable, which I find comforting in a restaurant.”
There’s also arguably an element of timing at play. Institutions like the River Café and St. JOHN opened in the 80s and 90s and Moro celebrates its 20th birthday this summer. They landed on the scene when they were the pioneers. Rent wasn’t so eye watering and the cacophony of the PR circus wasn’t what it is today. So who’s to say they would find their feet were they to open their doors for the first time in 2017? At Portland (est. 2015) and Clipstone (est. 2016), Labron-Johnson knows full well the challenges of the time: “All these great places are continually opening and the food scene follows. But what happens when the crowds move on? You might only start to break even in two years’ time.” His solution is to make a concerted effort to remain timeless. Speaking at the Young People in Food event at her restaurant, Spring, Skye Gyngell concurs: “Trends are a moving target. It’s impossible to keep up. So the best you can do is have authenticity and integrity in everything you do”.
Perhaps it is this authenticity and integrity that has kept the best restaurants alive for so long. Much more than being PR spiel, it must be genuine and more often than not it comes from the creators. It’s no coincidence that Ruth Rogers, Fergus Henderson, Sam and Sam Clark are all still a living, breathing part of their restaurants. Their leadership and experience on the floor and in the kitchen is a reassuring promise to patrons that standards remain high. They might not be turning out the most Instagramed dish of 2017, but there’s absolutely a hunger for the timeless food they’re cooking, and cooking so well.
As nice as it would be for every restaurateur to see their creation through to the end, life happens and people move on. In which case, how is the spark of a restaurant kept alive instead of fizzing out into oblivion? Just like in any other business, it can only forge ahead if the values of the brand have been meaningfully passed from the founder into a shared culture among employees. Some 98 years ago Frederick Belmont opened Bettys in Harrogate and the fact it is as popular today as it was back then is in no small part due to the sustained passion for hospitality excellence throughout the Yorkshire enterprise.
It’s not a case of young people wiping out the classics in one fell swoop with their tolerance of hard bar stools, preparedness to queue and demand for something new every week. On the contrary. For every impromptu weeknight dinner, there’s someone desperately trying to find a restaurant that will please their parents as much as their out-of-town friends. Whether it’s a modern classic or decades old, captained by its founder or sustaining a legacy, a restaurant that’s able to serve good food with genuine, dependable hospitality will have mouths to feed.
Chloë Hamilton @chloedavida
This article was first published in Issue 11 of CODE Quarterly.