Fleur Britten is author of the 3rd Edition of Hg2 London and a writer at the Sunday Times Style magazine. If anyone knows London’s ever-changing food scene, it’s Fleur.
London foodies are over astronomical gastronomy. Post recession, luxury is – gasp! – out of fashion and the Towers of Babel have been toppled. Instead of the studied fanciness, oppressive formality and cheffy faffing of more ostentatious dining, diners are choosing something altogether more honest, better value and spirited. The economic downturn has not stemmed the flow of new restaurants (nearly half of the reviews in our third edition of London are new entries), but it has radically changed their philosophy.
So it’s fine-cooking over fine-dining – in all sorts of fresh guises. It explains the popularity of the modern bistro model, where layers of imagination have been applied to a humble onion soup, say (at Bistrot Bruno Loubet). There’s the tiny but mighty Polpo (that’s proved so successful that a second, Spuntino, was inevitable). Perhaps the very epitome of the new mood, Polpo mixes New York’s egalitarian walk-in culture with Venice’s friendly tapas-style sharing plates, all at honest, good-value prices. Wine is served in modest carafes (as at Arbutus and Terroirs) – an effective shorthand for saying that good times are rated over, say, Pétrus.
Similarly, the trend for sharing tiny plates (Polpo, Bocca di Lupo, Caravan) and massive roasts alike (HIX Soho, Magdalen, The Anchor & Hope) only helps to jolly the experience, gets people talking about food, and finally allows us to make the kind of mess that the starchy white tablecloths forbade. And all-day dining? It’s down with rules, and up with eating what and when you like. The rise of bar-eating (especially lovely for two) – at J Sheekey’s new oyster bar, Bocca di Lupo, Barra- fina, Polpo (again) – also serves to break down the barriers; the bar is basically the chef ’s table, without costing hundreds of pounds for the privilege.
But there is a new variety of privilege afoot – it’s very democratic, exceptionally good value and very friendly indeed. It’s the underground restaurant movement, where amateur chefs open up their own kitchens to cook for cash, and of course, the love of it. Given that these are not businesses, they are prone to come and go, so the best way to find them is online – though when you have, do book ahead. Some have even been so successful that they’ve gone overground, for example Nuno Mendes’ Viajante. Perhaps Gordon Ramsay should open up his home.
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