Cash may be tight, but the scramble for seats at ‘it’ restaurants has never been more fierce, says The Guardian food critic Marina O’Loughlin
"Forget the latest Nicholas Kirkwood heels (although buy those too); the far more fashionable accessory to have these days is a restaurant reservation. The right restaurant reservation. Recent dinners have seen me stomping around an abandoned office block in Canary Wharf and freezing my behind off on the upper levels of a Camberwell car park. I’ve eaten out of a billycan in a vast industrial space inhabited by vintage caravans in Liverpool, and licked chicken-liver cream off a caramelcoated house brick above a raucous boozer in Islington. Whatever happened to restaurants?
Never in the history of paying for your tea has eating out been more ‘achingly hip’. While the headlines bleat about austerity and credit crunches, NYC import Balthazar, a pastiche French brasserie in Covent Garden, is a nouveau smash. You can’t grab a bite at the likes of Manchester’s new Lucklust Liquor & Burn, Soho ramen-joint Tonkotsu, or the West End’s rather wonderful Patty & Bun without interminable queues. Even when we’re tightening our belts metaphorically, it looks like we’re wearing elastic-waisted joggers in real life, all the better for cramming in the duck shepherd’s pie or pistachio-glazed donuts.
While the grand-a-pop statement bag is now regarded as vulgar, it’s perfectly acceptable to tweet your traffic-light petit fours from newly landed Ametsa (current tasting menu: £105). But even more desirable is being first at, say, the Forza Win installation in a disused pickle factory that nobody but you and a handful of arch social media manipulators knows about. If you can afford a pair of Primark skinnies, you can afford a designer Neapolitan pizza – and suddenly we all know which we’d prefer. Dining out is the one luxury we’re reluctant to let go of.
On my list of ‘places to do’, I currently have more than 150 new or newish ‘notable’ restaurants, many of which I have to accept I’ll never get round to (something that causes me actual pain). According to food service research consultancy Allegra Strategies, 2012 saw more than 3,000 new restaurants launching in the UK. When I asked Anya Marco, Allegra’s director of insight, what our most popular restaurant was, I wasn’t at all prepared for the answer. Inhabiting, as I do, a world of navel-gazing Twitter restaurant obsessives, it never occurred to me that, of course, it’s Nando’s. All that handing out of VIP black cards to youthful popstars has paid massive dividends. Even the fast-food kids have traded up.
But for the hardcore restaurant thrill-seeker, the kind who’d rather pickle their own knuckles than eat piri-piri chicken and chips, it’s all about being in the know. This is the kind of foodie who knew that Yum Bun (Chinese-style pork buns that have been positively compared with David Chang’s seminal Momofuku jobs) was about to move from street food to bricks and mortar months ago. Who knows that, even if you can’t get a booking at Dabbous until next century, downstairs in Oskar’s Bar the food is every bit as mesmerising, the cocktails are red hot and you can simply walk in. They’ve scored the recipe for The Clove Club’s buttermilk chicken, exchanged DMs on Twitter with Russell Norman and have Jason Atherton on speed dial. It has to be said, they can also bore for Britain.
Increasingly, new places have to offer something that screeches USP in order to stand out from the crowd. Take chef Tom Seller’s new restaurant Story: I judged one of his signature dishes last year for the YBFs (Young British Foodie) Awards, a candle made of dripping that you lit so its meaty fat could lubricate bread made from a ‘mother’ that included almost rotten apples. No, honestly, it was delicious. It hasn’t opened yet, but ‘booking lines have gone live’ as the social-media hypesteria merchants will have it, and you’ll get RSI trying to get through.
So what galvanises this headlong rush through the doors of every new restaurant? Much of it is simply food’s relatively recently acquired ‘cool factor’, the trickle-down effect from all those artisan charcutiers in Portland or chocolatiers in Brooklyn. It’s far easier – and, crucially, more comforting – to brandish your cool credentials by scarfing the latest artisan hotdog than it is to immerse yourself in Derrida (although the same beard and horn-rim uniform works for both). Fans track down recherché joints and ingredients with the kind of fervour once reserved for underground bands and namecheck gochujang mayo the way they once braved the mosh pit. These days, food even behaves like music, with ‘feastivals’ and ‘tweat-ups’, where punters score scallop and bacon rolls every bit as feverishly as they once chased the dealers.
As a greedy restaurant fan, I welcome all of this. I’ve always preferred sliders to Stratocasters, but now I’m no longer an oddity: the perfect collision of food, fashion, performance and social media was the Gizzi Erskine-hosted Lab Event at the end of April, where Michelin-starred chefs jostled with top mixologists for “an array of interactive experiences”. And when even established outfits like the Galvins are getting in on the act with their upcoming Festival of Food and Drink (13-19 May), you know that dining out has become every bit as important a piece of social currency as the latest arthouse movie. We can expect the typical feeding frenzy from this event: it seems that in times of recession, we’re turning to simpler pleasures of the flesh. And good food never disappoints, never grows old or finds itself on the charity shop shelves. Darling, that burger really does look fabulous on you."
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