A bold new project is acknowledging the role of London’s restaurants in the capital’s history and culture
Establishing a successful restaurant is challenging at the best of times but recent events have conspired to make some proprietors wonder if it’s worth bothering. The effects of the pandemic are still being felt through a shortage of staff, while war in Ukraine has driven up the costs to the point many venues find themselves either limiting their hours or facing permanent closure.
In London, these problems are exacerbated by the sheer number of establishments vying for trade during a cost-of-living crisis. On the one hand, it makes the enduring success of the capital’s restaurants all the more impressive; on the other, it begs the question why don’t we do more to celebrate them? When a man is tired of London’s restaurants, as the city’s great chronicler Samuel Johnson didn’t quite say, he is tired of life.
‘Celebrate London Restaurants’ is a new project aiming to address this oversight. Launched in association with London’s Evening Standard newspaper and supported by Thomas Pink, in the coming months the venture will showcase the best of London’s restaurant culture, from redoubtable stalwarts to exciting new openings.
The idea is the brainchild of Christina Makris, an academic and cultural commentator. ‘My background is in philosophy,’ she explains, ‘but I write about all sorts of things, including food and wine; what I most definitely am not is a food critic.’ Indeed, Makris’ interest borders on the anthropological. ‘I’m fascinated by restaurants and how they work at the level of our senses,’ she adds. ‘They’re the scene of so many important events in both our personal lives and the wider life of London. We celebrate museums and galleries, so why not restaurants?’
As for what qualifies as a great London restaurant, there are as many ways to navigate the listings as there are to slice and dice a soffritto. You could, for instance, simply run through the alphabet; take a starter at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, your main from the cluster around halfway – Locanda Locatelli, Murano, Nobu, The River Café – and finish with dessert at Scott’s.
What piques Makris’ interest most keenly is what you might call the family tree, a network of contacts and connections which links so many of London’s top restaurants and chefs. The Roux brothers, for example, Albert and Michel of Le Gavroche fame, were responsible for training a banquet of talent, including Pierre Koffmann and Marcus Wareing. Koffmann’s pupils included Marco Pierre White, who went on to train pretty much everybody else, such as the aforementioned Heston, along with Jason Atherton and Gordon Ramsay. Who imparted his own skills to, among others, Angela Hartnett and Clare Smyth.
Those not a product of the grand-hotel maestros include Jacob Kenedy (Bocca di Lupo), who trained under Sam and Sam Clark, at Moro. The last-named makes it on to Makris’ shortlist, as do two other venues which are part of the same complex web. Jackson Boxer, a risen star of the London scene – and also a Thomas Pink ambassador – runs Brunswick House, south of the river, and west London’s Orasay. Boxer is the godson of Jeremy Lee (Quo Vadis) and in his youth was a babysitter for the Hendersons; Fergus of nose-to-tail St. JOHN, and his wife Margot who, with Melanie Arnold, established Rochelle Canteen, forerunner of countless east London hipster joints.
Celebrate London Restaurants will feature 30 establishments across the city, a mix of well-known classics, inspired newbies and a few leftfielders. What unites them, Makris insists, is a shared ethos regarding what’s important. For example, Makris highlights the work of Chantelle Nicholson, head chef at Apricity, a restaurant which champions sustainability. ‘Apricity cares about provenance,’ Makris says, ‘but there’s more to it than where the lettuce comes from.’ The wider point, she says, is about creating a sense of community, pastoral care that extends to both diners and staff. Which is why, even if a customer has just ordered Apricity’s most expensive bottle of wine, Nicholson closes her doors at 11pm sharp to enable staff to get home by public transport.
Another trait shared by the restaurants on Makris’ list is a decent work ethic. ‘Lots of people in the industry are real troupers,’ Makris says, citing Jeff and Chris Galvin, brothers and owners of Galvin La Chapelle, also part of the project. ‘The Galvins might be successful now but they’ve been around,’ Makris says. ‘Chris worked for Corbin and King and helped set up Bluebird for Terence Conran.’ Their current venture is a classic and hugely popular French bistro, in Spitalfields. ‘If people enjoy a memorable experience they tend to come back and the Galvins have customers now who first came to their restaurants as babies.’
The sense of community Makris so enthuses about owes much to her Greek heritage. ‘In Greece, being a waiter is a solid profession,’ she says, ‘a job for life. It allows you to feed other people and it enables you, in turn, to feed your own family. In the UK and other parts of Europe, it’s seen as a menial job, for students or as work for summer holidays.’
Makris believes it is important to appreciate restaurants in the round. ‘The menu matters, of course, but there are many other factors at play. It might be a historical building, or the influences the restaurant draws on.’ She loves Toklas, for example, in London’s Temple area, because of its Brutalist architecture, what Makris dubs ‘a mini-city overlooking the Strand. The food is great but they’re also respectful of dining heritage.’ Sketch, on the other hand, another restaurant to feature, she describes as ‘a madhouse, which is part of its charm’.
Celebrate London Restaurants is very much about the “indies”, restaurants run by a chef-patron, or establishments not reliant on private equity or sovereign-wealth funds. It’s why the list includes Café Deco, in Bloomsbury. Ostensibly a wine shop selling food, Makris points out that head honcho Anna Tobias ‘is an amazing, incredible chef who’s worked at Quo Vadis, The River Café and St. JOHN. How we choose the venues is slightly accidental but also not.’
Recommendations for old-school London classics tend to focus on clubland (Brooks’s and White’s, not discotheques); The Game Bird at The Stafford, Wilton’s and The Goring. For all this geographical proximity, Celebrate London Restaurants demonstrates that un-touristy excellence proliferates across the city: at Mount St. Restaurant in Mayfair or Andrew Edmunds in Soho; at Pizarro in Bermondsey and Kudu Collective, a much-heralded South African joint in Peckham.
Of her chosen venues, a final unifying factor can be found in the project’s suffix, “The Art of Dining”. Makris says the art in question is about the whole dining experience. In namechecking L’Escargot, she explains that although you’re likely to find nice art on the walls, ‘it tends to be a byproduct compared with the other things that make it a great restaurant; the food, the chefs and customers [Mick Jagger is a fan]. We shouldn’t see restaurants as some sort of lifestyle filter but as important agents in society and culture.
Participating venues will provide diners with a Thomas Pink gift-card, entitling them to 20% off our shirts/ products when presented at our Jermyn Street store. For a full list of restaurants and more information: celebratelondonrestaurants.com