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What is wrong with the London restaurant scene?
And how can we fix it? A Hater compilation, ft. The Scene
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The Hater is a column dedicated to the art of hating. Each week, a different writer examines something they hate, or observes a trend of hating in the food world.
This week’s Hater is The Restaurant Scene
What is wrong with the London restaurant scene?
Hatred isn’t the opposite of love, it is merely a symptom of it. Although Vittles rarely covers the London restaurant scene – that is, the hermetically sealed scene defined by the most in-demand (mainly) central London restaurants and their associated network of chefs, media, PRs, producers, suppliers, designers, influencers, flunkies etc – it is something we are unavoidably a part of. Sometimes, it is even something that we love; therefore, we spend a lot of time thinking about what we hate about it.
The culinary leaps made in London over the last three decades have been prodigious, but hype and mindless cheerleading have never helped the city to improve. That our restaurant scene now ranks as one of the best in Europe does not mean that it could not be better, that the conditions for it thriving could not be made more favourable, that there aren’t features (rather than bugs) holding it back from realising its full potential. Talk to anyone who actually works within the scene, and you will find that no one knows this better than the people who see it every day, and who have to its many problems – from unworkable rents and diminished workers’ rights to hype and the increasing pressure to stand out in a competitive field.
For this week’s Hater, we asked 23 Vittles readers and contributors – who work in, have worked in, write about or have written about the London restaurant scene – two related questions:
What is the biggest problem with the London restaurant scene in 2023?, and How would you fix it?
Here are their answers. We hope to do the same with a larger survey covering London restaurants in their totality, and see where the concerns differ or overlap. In both cases, we hope they get you thinking about what you care about most about London restaurants, and how we might make them better.
Contributors in alphabetical order:
Montague Ashley-Craig founder Montamonta; Dom’s Subs WAG
Lewis Bassett chef
Gemma Bell Gemma Bell & Company PR
Barclay Bram co-founder Bracia; chef
Nick Bramham head chef Quality Wines
Thomas Browne founder Decatur
Ryan Chetiyawardana Mr Lyan
Oliver Costello baker and co-owner Toad Bakery
Chloe-Rose Crabtree head baker Bake Street
Thom Eagle former head chef Little Duck
Feroz Gajia chef and co-owner Bake Street
Eric Jeffers freelance chef
Matthew Lee editor Notes from Below
Anna Sulan Masing restaurant and drinks writer
Jonathan Meades former restaurant critic at The Times
Keith Miller lapsed restaurant critic and spoon enthusiast
Zana Millen chef
Sam Napier co-owner Sonora Taqueria
Slutty Cheff chef
Raphaël Rodriguez Vine Trail
Michelle Salazar de la Rocha co-owner Sonora Taqueria
Crispin Somerville co-owner Barrafina, El Pastor, and Quo Vadis
Molly Pepper Steemson former sommelier
Ingredients, staff, energy costs, rent. All of it has exploded, and it’s done so within the confines of the already full-body-latex-gimpsuit tightness of restaurant margins. Most people understand this, and most people are willing to forgive restaurateurs who are honest about what’s happening. I’m happy to pay extra for a meal cooked by chefs who earn London living wage, and I’m sure a lot of customers are. I remember seeing a really fair sign in Alhaji Suya recently which went into pretty granular detail about why they’d put their prices up (their combo box had increased by £1). But then I’ve also seen some of London’s hippest small-plates joints shrink the already very small plates, charge £11 for three anchovies that require exactly zero prep, and £4 for two slices of bread and some butter. This feels disingenuous: be honest about your costs. Barclay Bram
Restaurants, like any individual or business (indeed, more so than businesses in some other sectors) are feeling the pain of rising energy costs, raw ingredient costs, rents, tariffs, etc. We have absorbed as much of these increases as we can to avoid passing them on to stretched customers, and yet the cries of outrage at even modest price increases are palpable, and can feel a little myopic. Whilst everyone is aware of increases to the costs of living, it does often feel like this understanding doesn’t stretch to encompass the cost of dining out.
There have been a few first-person pieces in the press that help the dining public understand the breakdown of costs that make up the price of your meal. These are important for changing the minds of people that might have assumed price increases are about ‘lining shareholder pockets’ when the reality is most likely that, even with price increases, profit is still at a deficit to previous years or budget. Crispin Somerville
Lack of accountability
Of course there are the staffing issues, the mayhem of Brexit and the universal feeling of recession looming, but I actually think the biggest issue is one of division. I have a bugbear about the split we create between food and drink; partly because it’s not real, but partly because it reinforces so many issues as a result. This division is stoked in so many ways, and is a major cause of why there’s so little support from a government point-of-view – despite the fact that food is our biggest manufacturing sector, and the creative arts are our biggest export.
But the issue extends further. Because we see each other as competitors rather than peers, we have zero accountability, and it becomes a matter of us and them. As we’re fixated on whether people are part of the appropriate audience to comment, rather than on the crimes themselves, we end up ignoring some of the bigger perpetrators within the industry. The solution? Either a running Chewin’ the Fat-style ‘Good guy, good guy, wank’ list or – probably more appropriately – a collective that represents the industry, that can argue and leverage at a government level, and can help us self-govern and give us support. There are some good initiatives, but they tend to be siloed to certain sectors. It would be great to have the industry band together – the act alone would help hugely. Ryan Chetiyawardana
Again and again, the biggest problem on the London restaurant scene is that staff are being underpaid and overworked, employee welfare comes in the form of a cycle-to-work scheme and turnover is so high it’s not uncommon to be trained by someone with just shy of three weeks’ service. Not everywhere is like this, of course, and – with no supporting evidence – it does feel like it’s getting better, but the industry at large is still broken.
Although improvement is slow, food in London is being hyped and people are more interested than ever. Vogue is writing about bakery queues and people still go to Sketch because of TikTok. So goes my solution: those who inform others about food need to place more accountability on the businesses they promote (do some digging), all without being too boring. Oliver Costello
Fergus Henderson’s dictum is to ‘Let nature write the menu’, but too many chefs now are content to let Natoora write it for them. In so-called ‘ingredient-led cooking’, sourcing is everything, and when everybody’s sourcing is done by the same middleman (however excellent their produce) you start seeing the same dishes pop up everywhere. Thom Eagle
Seasonal eating was once a great way to cook in restaurants, as an abundance of great produce meant you had something both cheap and delicious, which also meant you could be generous. This is no longer the case for many restaurants. As the number of Fast Fashion Farmers (farmers chasing and/or creating trends by growing things they can market best) grew, the price and exclusivity of in-season produce rose. Chefs now have to fall over themselves to buy a hundred mediocre root vegetables in the lean months to be guaranteed anything approaching the best produce when spring and summer arrive. In theory this is a great thing: redressing the balance between farmer and consumer so that farmers can do right by their land and make good money year-round. But in practice it’s just another clique-y barrier to entry for anyone that doesn’t worship at the altar of regional Italian produce (how much for a watermelon/mango/uva fragola?), or who doesn’t shout about their zero-waste initiatives/natural wine list/direct-trade coffee programme. All at once, people are ‘priced out’ of better produce, not by the bottom-line figure but the cost of the dues required to even get access.
Aside from flattening market options, which would never happen, a reasonable idea would be for those with an abundance of produce to offer it at the same price they do to others without terms or strings attached. If this happened, one customer wouldn’t have 100 kg of spring onions they needed to use and preserve, and some could be sold on to those interested. Feroz Gajia
A lot of people haven’t really figured out how to talk about food or restaurants subjectively. The hot-or-not, bestblankinlondon mentality is reductive, and makes you question how much anyone really enjoys eating food as opposed to making savvy proclamations; a lot of the dominant, oft-repeated opinions sound like sixteen-year-old me arguing over the best Radiohead album, knowing full well I didn’t like any of them. We recently got a PR request from a luxury developer who was compiling a list of the best food spots in Hackney, and I feel like people need to find a way to discuss the thing they love without sounding like promotional material for a million-pound flat in Dalston. Sam Napier
Like most contributors to this piece, I suspect, I don’t think there’s much wrong with London’s restaurant ecology that full socialism wouldn’t fix. Sadly I don’t have much to offer in the way of an interim solution. Instead, I’ll share my deepening dismay that nobody involved in building, decorating and kitting out new restaurants seems to care much about design at the moment. This is a matter not just of taste or function, but of meaning: thinking about how things look and feel in a restaurant is a way both of honouring an inheritance and implying a certain sideways perspective on that inheritance (Anna Tobias’s Chartier test plates when she launched Café Deco; the bricolage of uncle-anointed tableware at Singburi). It can also, in the breach rather than the observance, perhaps, be an eloquent way of saying, Yes, It Is All About The Food. Instead, we see a kind of gentility principle at work, a generically global business-casual non-aesthetic, a pabulum of hexagonal tiles, trailing plants and matte brass cutlery that, you feel, cannot possibly have been dreamt up by anyone in possession of hands, mouth, eyes. Keith Miller
It’s all become a bit predictable, hasn’t it? Has every young chef and restaurateur gone to the same school and learnt to write identical menus and wine lists, with identical pared-back interiors? Not that I’m opposed to cool little wine bars serving orange wine and plates of gildas, but not on every street in Hackney! Where has the variety gone? And if I see one more restaurant open serving puffed-up little flatbreads with anchovies or mussels or top, I won’t be responsible for my actions!
I think that some restaurants have lost their confidence and need to get it back. With the notion that ‘Everyone is a restaurant critic’ (Google Reviews, Tripadvisor and, of course, Instagram and Tik Tok), there’s a nervousness about doing the right thing. We want restaurants to have the confidence to say, This is our menu, this is how we do things here; trust us, you’ll enjoy it. Gemma Bell
Diversity and representation
As seen most recently in responses to Thomas Straker’s white-chef-dude post (‘‘I wanted to hire women or PoC, but they didn’t apply!’), or in the overwhelming white winners of food media awards. The onus is on marginalised people to enter white and/or masculine spaces – constantly living outside their comfort zone and reframing their work to fit the mainstream and white gaze – whereas those in power refuse to change. The problem is not the lack of diverse people doing good work, it’s that those in power lack imagination. The answer? To revalue the concept of what ‘good’ is, and write a damn job ad that doesn’t only appeal to white dudes. (And, support the Be Inclusive Awards next month!) Anna Sulan Masing
The men you work for might employ many competent women. If they do, they will tell you. They will not have female business partners or investors. They will not tell you this, but it will become obvious. It will become especially obvious when they ask you and your good looks to Look after some very important people. After lunch, one of the very important people might ask you to come outside with him for a cigarette. Your boss might give you an encouraging nod. The very important person might put a hand on your back as you leave; you might grimace and let him. When he asks you to come back to his hotel you might politely decline, and when he leans in to kiss you, you might excuse yourself and walk calmly back inside. You might tell your boss, who will apologise, comfort you and assure you that it won’t happen – to you – again. Molly Pepper Steemson
One of the biggest problems with the restaurant scene in London right now is the growing culture of ‘convenience’. A general intensification in work across industries, and fifteen years of real wage stagnation, has meant working people have less and less free time as they work more and more. The restaurant ‘scene’ is then increasingly defined by convenience for those who can afford it, rather than collective enjoyment. This not only hurts customers, but also means more pressure on those who cook the food, clean the kitchens, and serve the meals.
This is obviously not something that is fixed easily. Indeed, to ‘fix’ this problem would probably be an existential threat to restaurants as we now know them. However, a step in the right direction could be a conscious attempt to organise movements for the right to food. In the 1970s, youth movements in Italy organised ‘auto-reduction’ practices, where they collectively enforced reduced, or even free, access to not just restaurants but all sorts of cultural spaces, such as cinemas and theatres. Whilst we cannot just directly copy such practices, this history could inform contemporary attempts to collectively fight for ‘solidarity pricing’ in restaurants, and for expanded access to wider ranges of restaurants for all those who live in London. Linking such practices to the struggles of restaurant workers could also help encourage forms of public, collective eating practices – that happen beyond the customer–worker divide that currently defines the ‘restaurant’ – pushing them towards being spaces defined by collective enjoyment and responsibility. Matthew Lee
Whether it be the suited ‘curatorial’ land/food-hall owner looking for a box-check in diversity, or a career-changer with a Caves de Pyrene wholesale account, nearly everyone wants to take an unreasonable cut from those of us with 100% of the sweat equity on the front line who are cooking, providing value and bringing life to spaces.
There are a few things that would go a long way in fertilising the creativity of chefs starting up all over this city. Abolishing rents that include the phrase ‘whichever is higher’ (usually in relation to a fixed-rent number vs an unreasonable % of turnover) is one. But what needs to change is the attitudes of venue owners – without the gumption or desire to hire and train a team and develop a menu for themselves – who suggest that bringing a crowd, a purpose to stay, beverage spend, fulfilment of licence obligations, and space ‘activation’ is quite simply not enough, and would like to help themselves to 25% of our turnover too. Thomas Browne
There’s a gradual expansion of self-employment status that often goes under the euphemistic label ‘freelance’. The term ‘freelance’ conjures up images of a kind of rugged journeyman-style worker, relied upon for their skills and experience, working on their own terms, meeting the employer face-to-face as equal partners. In reality, what this has meant is the gradual erosion of workers’ rights across the industry, as employers relinquish their responsibility to workers and opt instead for a revolving door of freelance hands for hire. Consequently, many kitchen workers, now self-employed, have none of the comforts associated with contracted employees. No holiday pay, no sick pay, no pensions, no paternity, no maternity.
Dealing with this problem is complex. It precedes the so-called ‘cost-of-living crisis’ and has more to do with urban development, gentrification, and lack of collective bargaining power in the industry. Whilst ‘freelancing’ may have short-term benefits – more freedom, bigger pay packages – the longer-term issues concerning stability, longevity and comfort will become more sclerotic as time goes on. The first step would entail kitchen workers themselves rejecting the romance of ‘freelancing’ and instead focusing on our shared condition as precarious workers. This would probably look something like the work small, flexible unions do, rather than the slow trudging of rigid behemoths associated with TUC-style trade unionism. But the potential costs to individual organisers is steep, and the scale of the task huge. Beginning a conversation around the false promise of ‘freelancing’ may, at the very least, get people thinking about our predicament. Eric Jeffers
The biggest problem is the lack of consistency in delivering quality service and food, regardless of the type of restaurant (from super-casual to fine dining). The pool of talent has dwindled significantly over the past five years, while the number of new openings is still high – this means there’s a clear lack of knowledgeable and skilled staff at all levels and positions, so (incompetent, even if sometimes willing) staff end up in positions for which they don’t have the experience and drive. This also amplifies job-hopping in hospitality, resulting in a lack of staff retention – a key factor in delivering consistent quality.
If we put aside the obvious political stupidities compounded by Covid, I think the issue is systemic and cultural – working in hospitality in the UK is still regarded as a lesser job by too many. Education and inspiring the young is key, while also offering decent packages and a positive, inclusive, respectful culture. All the hospitality actors need to get together and play their part in lobbying the politicians and landlords, while creating efficient platforms that will inspire and educate… easy to say, not to do! Raphaël Rodriguez
I think a big problem arises from unrealistic expectations in such a competitive scene. Our experience is that people want us to open 24/7, serve good food for cheap, cater, deliver, answer to PR firms requesting our presence at the millionth food festival of the summer, whatever new app, corporate catering, dark kitchens, events, marketing opportunities – none of which have anything to do with our original goals. Restaurants that strain to meet these expectations spread themselves too thinly, and the ones whose priority is to meet those expectations before having a concrete food concept are often the most visible, leading to the same three trendy dishes plaguing the city, your Instagram feed and your plate. Michelle Salazar de la Rocha
London is very much a pre-booking city. I know reservations are helpful for the bottom line and, yes, there are plenty of neighbourhood spots you can usually get into without a reservation. But the dining culture of London generally favours those with the foresight to book tables weeks in advance. As a person with a mood-dictated appetite, this is a practice I’ve never really been able to get behind. London’s reservation culture is so strong that most of the calls I field at work involve me politely telling people that no, they cannot reserve a table to eat fried chicken burgers out of a bagasse box. If I had it my way, places would keep space for walk-ins, or even offer a walk-in menu with items that take less time to prepare, so people looking for a quick bite can take a table that is between bookings, like a pre-theatre situation but for the hangry wanderer. Chloe-Rose Crabtree
London is a really hard city to be spontaneous in because places book out so far in advance – and because people know this to be true, they book out places they might not bother to show up to on the night. On a social level, it makes London boring. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say to people who are asking me if I want to get dinner with them in November when, here we are, in September. From a restaurant’s perspective, it either means turning away customers who turn up on the door for customers who might not show in the end, or creating an uncomfortable shuffle in the restaurant – either leave tables empty for forty minutes because it’s not quite enough time to fit someone in before the next booking (who may or may not show), or having to hustle a table out (again, for people who may or may not show). So, no more bookings. For anything. If you turn up and the restaurant is full, why not… find another one nearby? Barclay Bram
Since the pandemic we have lost the ability to walk into restaurants and ask for a table for dinner. I love a spontaneous night out, but now when you go onto apps to check availability every restaurant looks full. My advice is to still try. I actually don’t believe that restaurants are full (I know, I used to manage reservations for large restaurants back in the day!); there’s always a table somewhere, and of course there are no-show tables to fill. The frustrating thing is that so many restaurants now don’t have telephone numbers, so we can’t call up and ask for a table anymore… bring back landlines, please! Gemma Bell
Before working in restaurants I didn’t realise how the table planning system is basically a game of tetris. If you fail to fill your tetris slot (your table booking) you basically completely destroy the painstakingly choreographed act of filling seats in a set rhythm. Of course every now and again we all slip up and arrive late. Perhaps you forgot your keys or the tube was delayed. But thirty mins plus is a pisstake. And especially when you have no excuse; please at least provide a heartfelt apology on arrival.
The other day I had a restaurant critic from everyone’s favourite newspaper who was over an hour late and brought three extra guests. We all went home very late because of them. Critics are fully aware that we will be making extra efforts in order for their experience to be faultless, thus it is an even greater slap in the face when they show up late. Which brings me to a related grievance: if you are the last table in a restaurant, and are merely sitting mulling over a tiny morsel of pudding while you plan your route home, please just pay the bill and leave: there are five to ten chefs, a team of bartenders and managers, and two or three KPs who have all been there for upwards of ten hours and are dying to make their last train home. Slutty Cheff
I used to have issues with the demands of full-time chef work while suffering from severe depression and anxiety, and felt there was no one in the workplace to talk to while also being afraid of taking a day off. This always ended in burn out and relapsing. But since starting my own business, I've started to realise the value of addressing sick or mental health days with more empathy and working with the employee to accommodate this, instead of working against them. Some ideas I’ve found helpful are offering more casual hours that they can choose from themselves, to talking and helping recognise why we are having issues at work and then actually making a plan to address and resolve them. Zana Millen
Part of the reason that institutions like Scotti’s Snack Bar and the Park Slope Food Coop have survived for so long, and can continue to serve their communities, is because they own the building. Operating in adverse economic conditions means that a lot of food businesses have to focus on a ‘certain demographic’ and keep up with food trends in order to try and turn a profit; this has led to the slow demise of third spaces, and places that genuinely serve the whole community. We all love Caffs not Cafes but, let’s be honest, there’ll be nothing to replace these caffs once they close down – and even then, without a food business owning the actual building, it’s hard to see how one opening in London today could last 50+ years.
This might be a pipe dream for most businesses in this economy, but at a minimum I’d strictly enforce the adherence of commercial leases to the existing Landlord and Tenant Act (1954), which would allow for an open-ended rolling contract (almost all new leases include a clause to circumvent this) and introduce a form of commercial rent control. My interventions might not be needed, though, as the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which is currently sitting in the House of Lords, could force landlords to auction off long-vacant units – lowering the barrier to entry for smaller restaurants. If the sheer number of boarded-up Class E units in ‘prime central London locations’ – especially in the Square Mile – is anything to go by, the market might even correct itself (if we’re lucky). Montague Ashley-Craig
Rent, but not just commercial rent. On average, Londoners spend more than a third of their income on it, and often up to two-thirds. Imagine: a third of every London renter’s pay. That’s a lot of money that’s going to private landlords that would be better spent on eating out. Avocado on toast and a flat white every day – but why not? The exceptional cost of housing in London lowers demand across the economy, food included, and that’s before we get onto the effect that high commercial rents have on the price of serving food in the capital. Related to that is rent’s effect on wages in restaurants, where landlords’ demands are often harder to ignore than those of a business’ workers. We’ve returned to a state in which the property-owning classes revel in our city, while renters not only serve them their meals, but pay for them too. We need to regulate rents, build more housing and, especially, build social housing, a la Vienna. Lewis Bassett
The ubiquity of the Nocellara olive
The Nocellara olive has spread through menus like smoked cod’s roe did in 2012. And here’s why: there is a widespread assumption that olives are perfunctory and cheap. No guest is willing to pay more than £5 for a plate of olives, and most people who order olives have no intention of actually eating them. They’re something ‘For the table’ to ‘pick at’; ‘They were actually free at this one trat in Taormina’. So every restaurant serves Nocellaras because they’re the least bad* olive you can get away with serving for £5, still turn a modest profit, and not lose too much sleep at night knowing a significant number went in the bin, uneaten.
Dare we dream for more? Dare we dream for a world in which we can serve unpasteurised Nyons olives from Provence, harvested after the first winter frost, later than almost anywhere else on earth; or monastic olives, hand-picked by monks on the slopes of Mount Athos and naturally fermented in barrels of sea-salt brine, honouring a millennia-old tradition? They might cost seven or eight pounds a portion, but the difference in taste is immeasurable, and at least they’ll only be ordered by guests who understand that ‘value’ and ‘cheap’ are not synonymous (and who also really, really love olives). None will be wasted. Plates will be finished, pits sucked dry. Nick Bramham
*I'm being unkind; they’re actually delicious. Creamy, with a gentle salinity
The ‘bistronomie’ movement in Paris during the 90s and early 2000s was straightforward. Highly accomplished chefs (Camdeborde, Breton etc) took over run-down cafés and restaurants, spent not a sou on décor and furnishing, and served the sort of cooking that was associable with multi-starred establishments at startlingly low prices. This could never have happened in London because British restaurateurs are preoccupied with image, appearance, style – the customer pays for the hefty loans taken out to give a dining room a particular look (which for many years derived from Julyan Wickham’s design for Kensington Place). The same restaurateurs tend to illiteracy. They mangle language and can’t punctuate. They are also pervious to crazes. In comparison to Paris, Vienna, Zurich, London restaurants have a short life. They are slaves to neophilia. This week tieles, next week 24-hour slow-cooked guttersnipe.
But the real problem with restaurants is not confined to restaurants… Britain is fucked. Only a bloody revolution will bridge the chasm between the indecently rich and the struggling majority. Jonathan Meades
Many thanks to all our contributors: Montague Ashley-Craig, Lewis Bassett, Gemma Bell, Barclay Bram, Nick Bramham,Thomas Browne, Ryan Chetiyawardana, Oliver Costello, Chloe-Rose Crabtree, Thom Eagle, Feroz Gajia, Eric Jeffers, Matthew Lee, Anna Sulan Masing, Jonathan Meades, Keith Miller, Zana Millen, Sam Napier, Slutty Cheff, Raphaël Rodriguez, Michelle Salazar de la Rocha, Crispin Somerville and Molly Pepper Steemson
This edition of Vittles was compiled by Jonathan Nunn and Adam Coghlan, and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.