London is the most exciting city on the planet for restaurants right now and if a food trend is happening here, you can pretty much guarantee that it will be appearing on a menu near you soon – wherever in the world you are.
But even if you haven’t set foot in a London dining room recently, the chances are that you’ve seen pictures of a designed-to-the-nines new restaurant interior here or a photo story of a friend’s meal appearing in your Twitter or Instagram feed.
Social media is now as much a part of the eating-out experience as trying to bag a booking at the latest hot table or standing in the queue of the newest no-reservations pop-up gone permanent. 130,000 pictures of food are shared each day on Instagram in the UK alone and it is estimated that one in five adults posts a picture of food on social media every month.
So with three meals a day meaning three opportunities a day to post pictures of food, switched-on chefs are falling over themselves to create the most Instagram-ready dishes, served up in the most photogenic crockery.
To stand out from the crowd, #avocadotoast just isn’t going to cut it. Instead, look for inspiration from London in the likes of the sugar-rush freakshakes piled high with cake, cookie chunks, cream and gooey sauces at Molly Bakes, the sticky slices of braised pork spilling out of pillow-soft steamed Taiwanese milk buns at Bao, or Dan Doherty’s pretty petal-strewn cherry waffles at Duck & Waffle.
Another London trend worth considering if you want to own social media is to drastically reduce the number of your diners. Small is beautiful for the serious foodie, especially when they can get up close and personal with the person making their dinner. And nothing earns Instagram bragging rights more than an exclusive dining experience.
This summer, chef-of-the-moment Jason Atherton launched Kisetsu, a 10-seat chef’s counter serving a Japanese tasting menu within his Clerkenwell newcomer Sosharu. Then there’s the recent arrival in the capital of Japanese superchef Mitsuhiro Araki’s nine-seat The Araki and Simon Rogan’s eight-seat Aulis ‘development kitchen’ hidden away to the side of Fera at Claridge’s. To say nothing of quality-obsessed chef Mikael Jonsson, who has halved the number of covers at his Michelin-starred restaurant Hedone from 40 to 24.
But such fulcrums of creativity might be about to become an endangered species – in central London, at least – as sky-high rents for prime West End properties push the capital’s chef-patrons out to the borders of zone 1. Summer 2016 saw Philip Howard up sticks from his two Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant The Square to open Elystan Street in Chelsea, while his near neighbour Claude Bosi closed two Michelin-starred Hibiscus and will resurface at Bibendum in the spring.
Howard and Bosi have both sensed that the appetite for starched-tablecloth fine dining is on the wane. Instead, their new projects capture the mood of casual luxury pioneered by east London chefs such as Isaac McHale of The Clove Club, James Lowe at Lyle’s and Mark Jarvis at Anglo. At these restaurants you’ll find some of the most creative cooking you’ll ever eat served in an informal, pared-back setting where you’re way more likely to see diners wearing a pair of jeans than a suit and tie: proof that fine dining can also be fun.
It’s little wonder then that in such a cut-throat market chefs are seeking the safe haven of a hotel dining room to show off their talents – and London is about to witness a bumper crop of new hotel openings, with big-name chefs as the bait to entice non-guests through the lobby. Get ready for (deep breath): Ollie Dabbous at the Henrietta Hotel, Anne-Sophie Pic at the Four Seasons at Ten Trinity Square, the Nobu Hotel Shoreditch, Nobu’s co-founder Robert de Niro’s Wellington Hotel in Covent Garden, and Soho House’s The Ned hotel in the financial district of the City, which will have a whopping eight restaurants.
What’s more, the old timers of the hotel scene are determined not to be left behind, with several announcing new chef signings for 2017. Tom Kerridge (of the two Michelin-starred Hand and Flowers gastropub) will take over the dining room at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower, top Mexican chef Martha Ortiz is coming to the InterContinental Park Lane and New York’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten, whose Vong at The Berkeley was one of the best restaurants of the 1990s, will open at sister hotel The Connaught.
So many new restaurants, so little time to eat in them all – and so few notches left on the belt. No wonder so many of us are embracing healthy eating when we dine out. Poke – pronounced ‘poh-kay’ – is the low-cal food set to take the world by storm, a marinated raw fish salad from Hawaii billed as the new sushi. Four new poke restaurants have opened in central London in the past year alone: Black Roe in Mayfair, Ahi Poke in Fitzrovia, Tombo Poke and Island Poke both in Soho.
There’s more raw fish in London from the second-wave of Peruvian that’s hit our shores at Chelsea’s Chicama and Martin Morales’ Ceviche restaurants. And after Nordic noir and hygge, it’s only natural that the clean flavours of Scandinavian cooking would be a hit with health-conscious diners: New York’s Aquavit has just opened in St James’s Market while over in rival development Nova in Victoria, D&D London is opening Aster with Finnish-born chef Helena Puolakka at the helm.
And small plates, which give the illusion of not pigging out, even if you end up eating your way through the entire menu, are still being lapped up by diners who want to try as many dishes as possible. It seems that there’s no cuisine that can’t be turned into tapas, as small-plate newcomers Veneta (Italian), Blanchette East (French) and Clipstone (British) have all proved.
All this in a city where if you’re looking for a Chinese restaurant you’ll need to decide whether you want Cantonese, Szechuan, Shanghai or Hunan cooking. Today’s restaurant diner, whether in London or elsewhere, is a savvy and well-travelled customer – and they expect to be given the world on a plate.