During the lifetimes of our grandparents, London was the capital of the greatest empire in the world. As result of centuries of colonial osmosis, in any street you are now more likely to find an Indian restaurant or Chinese takeaway than somewhere serving British food. And mass immigration over the last century changed the dining landscape forever – and for the better. It has become a world capital for delightful dim sum, toothsome tandooris, and succulent sushi. The diversification continues, and chefs in London can experiment in ways that would prove much more difficult in their native lands – for example, one of our picks is an Israeli restaurant with pork dishes on the menu.
London has many strengths, but British food wasn’t one of them; this is partly why Londoners have embraced foreign food so completely. Yet there are many home-grown chefs who have noted the brilliant produce grown in the UK, studied our finer cooking traditions, and then wondered why for so long British chefs have genuflected to the French and the Italians. It just took a little imagination to modernise British cooking into something that contemporary, urban dwellers might want to eat. This movement began in the 1980s, and was quickly coined ‘Modern British’ cooking. Within a few years, as more and more influenced crept in, in was better described as ‘Modern European’. This eclectic style of cooking compares with other restaurant trends in other countries, where it can be called ‘Modern International’, among other local names.
Parallel to the Modern European style of cooking a more local and seasonal trend has emerged, popularised by St John restaurant in Clerkenwell. Their approach was more bare bones, sometimes literally; their ‘nose to tail’ catchphrase has become widely used to describe any kitchen that celebrates offal and seasonal British ingredients. Many of London’s leading restaurants have St John alumni in the kitchens, and London owes St John a debt of gratitude. But things move quickly in restaurant fashion, and contemporary British food has moved on. Foraging has always been problematic in a northern country, and a city not close to the countryside; yet foraged ingredients has become a popular point of difference in some of the city’s top-end and more innovative restaurants.
Above all though, what London thrives on is innovation. Trends are quickly seized on, and if they prove popular, quickly become the new normal. One example of this is the no-reservation restaurant, where you can queue for an hour or more of a table; good for the restaurant’s cash flow, not so good if you’re a customer and don’t like standing outside in the drizzle. Another example is small plates menus. These give the illusion of being inexpensive and are a fun way to eat, but if you arrive with an appetite, the bill can quickly mount up.
On the plus side, Londoners’ thirst for the new sees many extraordinary concepts being tried, and some succeeding. For example, a café that serves only breakfast cereal; an ice-cream bar where ices are frozen to order using liquid nitrogen; a pop-up restaurant serving only canned food; a cocktail bar where you bring your own spirits. Gimmick! You cry. And of course you’re right. But without experimentation, Londoners would still be eating overcooked meat and twice-boiled vegetables. Fortunately for all of us, those days are long gone.