Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Way We Used To Eat

What were you doing in 2002? Were you at school, college or university? Or maybe you'd just started work. Me? I was, as I am now, living and working in London. I was just about hanging on to my twenties. I had more hair, and it was largely black. I'd like to say I was slimmer, but that would be a lie. Was I as obsessed about food as I am now? Probably not, but I did enjoy eating out to the extent that I was the proud owner of the 2002 Time Out Eating & Drinking Guide. I came across my copy when I was having a tidy up. Needless to say, this meant that I spent a good few hours flicking through it instead of clearing out crap in my flat.

Browsing through the guide, I was particularly fascinated by the changes over the last decade or so in how we eat and what we eat in London's restaurants. Take burgers, for example; the options in 2002 would absolutely horrify the burgerati of today. Without irony, Hard Rock Café, Planet Hollywood and TGI Friday's all appear in the 2002 guide as do Ed's Easy Diner and the long-departed Tootsies.

Back then, there was no Patty & Bun, no Byron and no spawn of Meatwagon. In fact the best in class was the original, and in those days, sole Gourmet Burger Kitchen (GBK) outlet on Northcote Road. In the words of Time Out: 'We're talking better than Eds, better than Hard Rock'. I was a big fan, and while GBK has since lost its lustre through over-expansion, it was a harbinger of better things to come. Whilst GBK might not be the godfather of the burger revolution that we have seen in the 21st century, it can certainly be considered a stepping-stone.

It's not just the burger scene that has changed beyond all recognition; London's Chinese restaurant scene has evolved, too. Dim sum was just beginning to break out of its for-us-by-us-Chinatown-ghetto with the opening of Hakkasan in 2001. Other signs of this sea-change included the expansion of the Royal China mini-chain and the likes of Phoenix Palace opening up in not-particularly-Chineser parts of town such as Marylebone. Fast-forward to 2013, and there is little doubt that pretty much all of the capital's finest dim sum eateries are found outside of Chinatown.

Going back to 2002, London's best Chinese restaurants were dominated by Hong Kong-style Cantonese joints serving up authentic dim sum, seafood and roast meats in parallel with a menu serving westernised dishes for the perceived tastes of the non-Chineser. While this style of restaurant still predominates today, there is so much more variety with many regions of China represented in the capital. In particular, as in China itself, Sichuan cuisine has emerged as the main challenger to the Cantonese hegemony. In turn, many Cantonese places now translate their menu in full to showcase their hitherto hidden delights. So, while not quite up to the standards seen in New York, Toronto or Sydney, there has been a big improvement in the quality and diversity of Chinese cuisine in London.

If you thought the burger scene was a bit crap in 2002, it was positively buzzing compared to what passed as ramen in London. Then as now, Wagamama was the mainstream option, but there were very few specialist indie ramen shops. In fact, scouring the Time Out guide, the only joint that seemed to put ramen first in those days was Ramen Seto. I reviewed it in 2009; it was decent enough but compared to the new generation of ramen shops, it now seems all a bit old-fashioned.

Every era has its culinary trends and places-to-be-seen-at. Looking back at the early-noughties, it would seem that I was more a dedicated follower of fashion than I am today. Atlantic Bar & Grill, Bank and numerous Terence Conran restaurants were all ticked off my list. And knowing what I now know, I am a tad horrified that I was a big fan of Smiths of Smithfield, which had a certain John Torode in charge of the kitchen. In my defence, he hadn't appeared on MasterChef at that point in time, and the cocktail bar was brilliant.

Many of these places served up food, which fused Middle Eastern, South Asian and East Asian flavours into dishes served the European way. Sometimes this worked, other times it didn't. Plus ça change. And while the quality of the food was often variable, all of these places had a fantastic buzz. All of which makes me wonder if Balthazar's arrival on the London scene is at least a decade too late in that punters nowadays place as much emphasis, if not more, on the food than the atmosphere.

The last decade or so has seen the rise and fall of a certain Gordon Ramsay. Back in 2002 he hadn't quite reached his commercial peak, but it could be argued that the restaurants in his stable were at their creative peak. In particular, Petrus, which in those days was an intimate restaurant in St James, operated by his then best mate, Marcus Wareing. I had the privilege of eating there around that time (I did tell you I was a restaurant whore back in the day) and it remains one of the best meals I've ever had.

Original Petrus is a rare instance of when things were better back in the day (another one is Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant – what the capital would give nowadays for a centrally located Italian restaurant of that quality) but on the whole, London's restaurant scene has just got better and better. Whether it's up there with the best in the world, well that's another question for another day.


  1. Blast from the past! Thanks for that! I went through a couple of older guides I've got and was struck by the changes too. And it's amazing how quickly we've got used to living in the best foodie city in the world.

    Just got back from Shanghai BTW and had a number of lunches at DTF... Despite XLB pretty much being a Shanghainese creation (and definitely an obsession), I have to say that those at DTF were among the pick of the bunch.


    1. Rich - that title of best foodie city is a hotly contested one! To borrow from football parlance, I'm not sure whether London's squad is as strong as others, although the first XI is pretty good.

  2. Isn't Tootsies now Giraffe? It's still shit though obviously!

    1. Becs - yeah, Giraffe bought many of Tootsies' outlets thus exchanging one family-friendly meh brand with another!