Jul 27, 2013

Private Dining In London – Mid-Year Report On What’s Trending.

We are just over halfway through 2013 – an ideal time to look at how things have changed in the world of food over the past 7 months, and to decrypt the direction that the restaurant world is heading. It’s always useful to stay on trend: what’s hot, what’s not, what’s cooking and what’s curdling?

It was deciphered across the foodie blogosphere that 2012 offered us some fantastic gastronomic developments. Burgers were in, The Hawksmoor was the place to be, chicken had been reinvented (did you hear about chicken on a brick?) The Dock Kitchen in Notting Hill caused a stir with its experimental menu and its Victorian wharf setting, and it was all about pop-up restaurants (a trend that has continued and grown throughout 2013). Back in January, the same foodies debated and predicted the possible trends of 2013. So how are the prognosticator masticators fairing at this mid-way mark of the year?

It was predicted by Mark Hix that “pockets of London” would rise in particular popularity over the course of the year. He based this prediction on the sudden upswing in status for the North-West of London, which before 2012 was not talked about with high gastronomic regard. Hix was speaking off the back of a successful 2012, after his own endeavours, namely the Tramshed and Hix Restaurant & Bar were being regarded at the top of the lists of the foodie elite in London. The North-West of London does indeed hold some jewels – perhaps less overstated than you’d find in central London but certainly worth investigating. Some examples of excellent venues with private dining rooms in this region are Rotunda near St Pancras and The Lord Palmerston at Tufnell Park.

Mark Hix himself was mentioned in the trend predictions of Ewan Ventners, the CEO of Fortnum & Mason. He said that 2013 “will see top-end chefs continue to create formats which are more accessible, for example Mark Hix and Tramshed”. What Ventners was getting at was the insanely popular niche that restaurateurs like Hix have picked up on and ridden with across London. Tramshed is a large Grade II listed factory-like space, which serves beautifully simplistic platters of delicious steak and chicken. It’s vibrant, fun, trendy, and perfect for large parties. There are then options to expand the experience into something a little more individual by attending one of Hix’s demonstrations downstairs in the test kitchen. This in itself is a trend in restaurants across the capital – it takes the Chef’s Table concept and makes it even more personal.

Chefs’ Table cynic and Brand Concept Consultant Mike Palmer predicted that chefs would start emerging from their kitchens in 2013 and begin cooking front of house – even out front of the restaurant itself on the street. As summer is only just here, and the weather is up-and-down as usual, this is something that is yet to be deciphered. However, Palmer’s dismissal of the Chefs’ Table concept is something that he wasn’t wise to do. The notion is as on-trend as ever, and in fact has become increasingly popular, all across London.

Where Palmer IS accurate is his idea that oriental food – noodles, pan Asian, Thai – will begin to trend in 2013. Honestly, its been trending for years, with popular chains such as Noodle Nation cropping up across the country. However, London has made it chic, and various venues across the city have risen in popularity lately with their Asian fusion menus. Thai food in the city is more authentic now also. A few years ago, the best place to grab a decent green curry and sticky rice would be the various pubs that dot Waterloo, Elephant & Castle and Covent Garden, which offer bespoke and traditional Thai dishes in their gastro-backrooms. Now, however, there’s a plethora of central London options, which are a little more stylish – namely Bam Bou in Fitzrovia, Minako at the Met, and Soho’s Inamo.

Covent Garden has become a new “place to be” in 2013 also. Whereas it was always in and out of fashion, restaurateur Russell Norman stated in January that with a few extra additions to its gastronomic landscape this year, its bound to be “cement its resurgence as a credible central London neighborhood after years in tourist doldrums”. And indeed, there is a lot to choose from: The 10 Cases offers a private downstairs cellar room, with no minimum spend and no need to pre-order food; romantic Clos Maggiore takes you upstairs, above the draping wisteria vines of the main restaurant, for its function room that overlooks the hustle and bustle of this famous area; and of course, who could forget The Ivy for a delicious meal with a side of celebrity spotting.

The Evening Standard’s restaurant critic, Fay Machler, has been proven wrong with various predictions this year – for example, we are yet to see Clapham take off as an exciting source for food, and her idea for a macrobiotic restaurant hasn’t happened either. However, she has been right in her predictions that chefs will continue to uptake residencies at restaurants, and continue to draw in the patrons that way. She was also quoted as saying that “baby boomers, the reliable source of disposable income, are of an age where they want comfort and a mellow atmosphere. Canny restaurateurs will respond to this.” There is certainly a trend in comfort food and cushioned surroundings in many of London’s eateries, with the array of gastropubs that are sprinkled around the city. The Cadogan Arms in Chelsea and The Lady Ottoline in Bloomsbury being just two classic examples.

PR guru Maureen Mills stated that things were going to take a much more vegetarian turn this year. But this has not been proven true. The UK is notoriously weak when it comes to catering for vegetarians. Even in eateries with a low ratio of meat on the menu, you will no doubt find that fish and other seafood have supplemented it. While this is music to many an ear, it doesn’t please the true vegetarian. What we are worse at, is catering for the vegans among us. Perhaps a future trend will see the UK revolutionize this food category in coming years, but it looks doubtful that this craze will be kick starting any time soon. Mills also insisted that restaurants with irritating “no booking” policies would start to reform. However, as much as the nation hopes she is right, mid-way through 2013 there is little sign of it happening this year.

Butchery is trending. Not in the serial killing sense, but in the art of showcasing and producing impressive cuts of meat. Many venues take pride in their meat displays – almost capitalizing on the potentially offensive reminder that when we sit down to a nice steak, we are eating a lovely cow. Perhaps this explains the lack of vegetarian trends in 2013. Greig’s of Mayfair’s signature dish is prime Scotch fillet; Fino’s down the road source their game from London’s best-regarded butchers; Tramshed’s decorative centerpiece is a photograph of an innocent chicken, perched atop an unsuspecting bull; and Dirty Burger literally provides you with what it says on the tin (you almost feel wrong eating there). Marina O’Loughlin wasn’t wrong then, when she predicted that “we’ll see more butch things that beardy boys like to do: in-house butchery, smokers, homemade charcuterie”.

Controversially, Mills also declared that fine dining is, possibly, dead. Quite a declaration! Her point was that those looking for a fun and lively environment are snubbing the top-class eateries of the city, and the “posh” venues are quiet at the moment – all that can be heard there is the clink of silverware and the hushed tones of the limited cast of patrons. While it’s true that the younger set in the city might be making a beeline for the cocktail bars of Soho and the gastropubs along the Thames, fine dining is not dead.  “Goodbye to ‘temples of gastronomy’ – no more whispering, tug-of-the-forelock formal service and over-the-top menu presentation,” she said in January. Her bold proclamation that livelier places cannot be “gastronomic shrines” is wrong. At Bluebird in Chelsea, for example, you’ll find a carefree café downstairs of buzzing post-work foodies, a vibrant bar upstairs, and an adjoining restaurant of exquisite food, where you will sit, eat, natter and breath in the atmosphere from the bar that overlooks you. These places merge a good menu with a good buzz. For those that want a quieter, perhaps more “sophisticated” experience, there is still plenty of respect shone on the likes of The Berkeley in Knightsbridge or Kensington Place in Notting Hill. Adding to this, private dining continues to be an unbeatable and varied experience. What’s magnificent about private dining in London is that one can enjoy the tranquility of a restaurant or, in some venues, opt to private dine as raucously as you so wish, with bars and basements available for hire, DJs at your command, semi-private rooms and indeed whole restaurant take-overs.

Finally, Jonathan Downey of fantastic bar Milk & Honey, predicted the continuation of a trend from 2012 – Hypesteria! He defined this as “saying places are ‘amazing’ and ‘the best’, ‘the greatest’ when they’re not”. Whilst his ridicule of this popular trend-within-a-trend amid the foodies of the city is rather astute and accurate, it could be argued that Downey has not yet eaten at the Hawksmoor.