For those of a certain vintage, London’s food scene in the 1980s was as predictable as it was basic. It was a city of emerging fast-food joints, Berni Inns and fish ‘n’ chip shops. It’s possible we’re being a little harsh and of course there were occasional shining lights like Michel Roux’s iconic Le Gavroche but generally speaking, on any map of the best food cities in the world, London barely registered.
Fast-forward thirty years and this incredible city sits squarely at the top table of the world’s most exciting food scenes. It’s unrecognisable, influential and home to some of the world’s most renowned chefs. But how did a nation of overcooked steak and single-fried chips transform into a hotbed of global cuisine?
According to the founder of Harden’s restaurant guide, London’s food scene was kick-started by two very unlikely restaurant bedfellows – Planet Hollywood and Quaglino’s. Again, if you’re of a certain vintage, you’ll remember the media circus that came with the opening of Planet Hollywood.
Stallone – An Unlikely Food Hero…
Movie hardmen Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger paraded their muscles in front of an adoring public and encouraged 90s yuppies to splurge on – admittedly – overpriced burgers. Americana had arrived in London and we couldn’t get enough of the memorabilia, the ribs and the theatre. It opened the door for pretenders to the throne to emerge, and emerge they did. All of a sudden, seventeen quid for a stacked burger and chips was an acceptable price to pay.
As for Quaglino’s, the Terence Conran-inspired art deco establishment underwent a makeover and their reputation for effortless service and bucketloads of food became famous. It was unabashed glamour. The place to be seen. It defined the new breed of modern London restaurant and set a trend – much like the Beastie Boys did for VW badges – for their Q-shaped ashtrays to, ahem, disappear!
The over-the-top Vegas-style glitz of Planet Hollywood and the more demure, pseudo-Parisian Quaglino’s set the template for media-friendly, approachable restaurants serving good food that has been copied by thousands of chefs in the 25+ years since.
Not Just Muscles & Mussels
During the 1990s, British chefs seemingly came to the sudden realisation that local produce was something to be embraced. There was always a place for Chilean seabass but we got more discerning and started to question the provenance of what we were eating. ‘Organic’ became a buzzword – both for quality and price…
Perhaps not by coincidence, the emergence of a higher quality of restaurant coincided with an upturn in disposable income. Professional 20-somethings were putting off having children and decided they’d prefer to spend their money on expensive cuisine over expensive cots and notwithstanding anything else, there were more of us. In the mid-80s London’s population was around 6.8 million and today, it’s the business end of nine million. More people, more restaurants, more choice. There was a captive, aspirational market who wanted more.
Food on the Telly
Now, we go online to find what we want. It’s quick and easy. But back then, London’s food scene was boosted by a new breed of very televisual chefs who not only told us what to do, they showed us how to do it in the most exciting way. Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Gordon Ramsay and the like looked good, cooked new and exciting food which they made look very easy and it added a sparkle that made us more and more interested in food, not just as fuel but as an experience.
Food critics emerged as stars in their own right and today we hold (or held) onto every word from Jay Rayner, Grace Dent, William Sitwell and the dear departed AA Gill. They tell us where to eat and we eat there. They and their cronies also have the awesome power to demonise a restaurant and on occasion, close it down completely.
Today’s Food Scene in London
As of right now, you can choose from something close to 40,000 places to eat. From coffee shops to fast-food joints to tastes from all over the world to 70 Michelin-starred establishments to specialist food markets, street food festivals and anything and everything in between.
Social media has also helped. Can any of us order food now without taking a picture of it first and posting it on Twitter or Instagram? The #foodporn hashtag has taken on a life of its own and all we need to do is see the images and we drool like schoolkids staring into the window of the local sweet shop after school.
Every week there’s a new celebrity chef opening a new restaurant and Peter Harden of Harden’s suggests that ‘eating out is the new rock ‘n’ roll.’
He’s probably right, and it’s all thanks to three Hollywood hunks and Q-shaped ashtrays.