To anyone old enough to remember the Coronation, “Swinging London,” or even the Beatles before they split up, the idea of London as the center of the foodie universe seems ludicrous, if not perverse. I’ve been eating out in London since 1962, and professionally (as one of the people who first noticed and labeled “foodies”) since 1977. I’ve had objects on my plate that you wouldn’t care to look at, let alone put in your mouth—from gristly pork pie in tooth-resistant pastry and thickly battered, grayish fish with limp chips to salads consisting of bruised butterhead lettuce and slices of unpeeled cucumber and pickled beet, all dribbled with sweet, white “salad cream.” Yet by the time I became the food critic for this magazine in the 1990’s, London was the good-food, good-news story. Of course there were mad excesses. I remember in 1972 that first inkling Londoners had of the French nouvelle cuisine: scallops served with a raspberry coulis.
Now what happens on London plates is noteworthy not for its nastiness, but because the trend will soon turn up on a table near you. Though let’s hope one factor does not cross the ocean: the exorbitant cost of eating out in London. The city is now so expensive that even Londoners paid in sterling are shocked at the cost of taxis, restaurants, and a simple pint in a pub. A more welcome aspect of the evolution of eating out in London is a happy trend toward simplicity. Once-proud towers of food are flattening, as the picture on the plate goes from 3-D to something that looks more like dinner.
As restaurateurs, like their customers, become more conscious of the carbon footprint what we eat leaves behind, the British are becoming more alert to seasonal foods: asparagus, strawberries, oysters, and especially game. Alongside this awareness is a revived interest in British food itself. Our regional food traditions are feeble compared to those of France or Italy (and, I’d argue, America). But a few old dishes are being rediscovered, as chefs follow the lead of Fergus Henderson at his St. John Bar and Restaurant and use the whole animal, nose to tail. Often these are robust comfort foods, more at home in the pub than in fancier surroundings. Probably the most impressive sign of London’s foodie ascendancy is the huge number of gastropubs (a term that would once have contained an internal contradiction) now in evidence.
Paris and Tokyo may have more Michelin-starred restaurants, but big-name chefs seem to think London is now the gastronomic capital of the world. Alongside the homegrown Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, the French contingent regards it as de rigueur to have a go at cracking the London culinary nut. The Pourcel twins have tried and failed: their hyper-lavish W’Sens is now Divo, a hilarious bad-taste Ukrainian mess hall for too-rich Russians. Joël Robuchon opened an excellent example of his Atelier formula in 2006, and Pierre Gagnaire’s breathtakingly expensive Sketch has survived since 2002. One star-spangled French chef has made a spectacular comeback—but more of him later.
The Old Guard
Two revamped fish places are glistening examples of the keep-it-simple creed. Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill, near Piccadilly Circus, is handy for theatergoers; Scott’s, in Mayfair (around the corner from the Connaught, which reopened in December after major renovations), is more in upscale-shopping territory. Bentley’s Irish chef and owner, Richard Corrigan, can occasionally be seen sitting at one of the red leather-upholstered stools at the sumptuous, marble-topped, wood-paneled ground-floor bar, which also has a few (desirable) tables. Exquisite, plump, briny British native oysters are $37 for six, and rock oysters a good deal less. The clubby feeling is maintained in the upstairs restaurant with blue and white William Morris fabric on the walls and blue leather chairs; and the menu is simplicity itself. I lunched on oysters followed by the freshest steamed haddock, filleted at the table, served with a green salad and thick, crisp french fries.
At Scott’s, the oyster bar in the center of the oak-paneled space has a 10-foot-long display of crustacea, and the room is hung with some choice contemporary paintings. The menu, now overseen by Kevin Gratton, has many of the virtues of Bentley’s. Great oysters, and starters of superb Salamanca ham, smoked mackerel, or asparagus. Personally, I eschew the more elaborately prepared dishes and follow on with beautifully fresh fish, lobster, or a roast game bird when in season, and skip dessert in favor of a “savory,” such as soft roe (herring milt, to be technical, which comes from boy herrings, as opposed to the actual roe of the girls) on toast. Add a glass of champagne and you’ve got a recipe for bliss.