2019 was another rocky year for the food and hospitality industry in the UK: a distressed market saw the collapse of Jamie Oliver’s empire, whilst Mexican chain Chilango is teetering on the edge, Pizza Express and the Ceviche group have only just secured rescue bids and Corbin and King made the difficult decision to close down Bellanger. But there have been many exciting new openings, from Circolo Popolare to Gezellig, and a degree of resilience despite the ever-present spectre of Brexit.
Our co-editors Cristian Ley (CL) and J A Smith (JS) discuss the highs and lows of 2019 and speculate on their predictions for 2020…
Favourite new restaurant(s) of the year
JS: Despite all the doom and gloom, new restaurants continued to open this year throughout London, though of course many of the big openings had celebrity chefs behind them: Nathan Outlaw’s Siren, Lello Favuzzi’s Mortimer House Kitchen and Anthony Demetre’s Wild Honey St James all impressed me. I’d also throw into the ring Cora Pearl, Kym’s and the revamped French House, even though they technically opened in 2018.
CL: It should have been The Drunken Butler in Farringdon, but I experienced disenchantment at the confirmatory second visit. Hmm. Cora Pearl was indeed superb and deserving of its praise. Bob Bob Cité in the Cheesegrater building (new in the sense of being added to the Bob Bob group) is extremely solid and, improbably, value for money. They boast a strong champagne list as well as a varied, fusion-y menu with accents of British fayre – and I can vouch for the portion sizes. Attentive, friendly service too. Give me a helping of their game pie any day! I hear you on Kym’s too – remember their blissful soy-glazed chicken?
JS: I do indeed. Fantastic meal…
CL: But taking all considerations into account, Bob Bob Cité has my vote. I’ve been three times in 2019 and all experiences reached the same high bar.
Bar or pub of the year
JS: The croissantification of King’s Cross shows no signs of stopping with great new bars popping up around Coal Drops Yard and Granary Square. I rather like Vermuteria and the new Hansom Lounge in the St Pancras Hotel. I didn’t particularly like Double Standard in the newly-opened Standard Hotel though. Sticking with the hotel theme, the new bar at the back of The Berkeley impressed me too. Of course I have to give the usual shout-outs to old favourites Noble Rot, Dukes, Fitz’s, Rules and George’s Bar. More recently I enjoyed the Mikkeller Pop Up in Exmouth Market – a collaboration with Rick Astley (yes, the Rick Astley) following their successful (and much louder) Shoreditch branch.
CL: I’m going to make a submission that overlaps with later sections: The Sportsman, near Whitstable. What a pub. A classic, Victorian lump of a building with sympathetic decor and drifty woods inside, complete with frothing ale pumps and a chalk-board menu. In Venn diagram terms, it’s where a proper pub meets upscale dining. While on the subject of Kent hostelries, The Peacock Inn near Goudhurst is another bequest to tavern enthusiasts. Still in its anno. 1380 footprint, its oaken beams were so low I couldn’t stand upright at the bar. Charming service and well-kept Shepherd Neame ales featured, such as their Master Brew. Moreover, I was served the most wonderful steak and kidney suet pudding. Quite honestly, the most lip-smacking suet casing that I’d ever experienced. All inhaled while set next to a roaring, inglenook fire on a November afternoon. Great times indeed.
Low points of the year
JS: Overall we had a pretty good run of restaurant experiences this year. But there were still a few disappointments for me: Lino, Isla and Monkey Island Brasserie I probably wouldn’t bother with again. Also, we weren’t all that impressed by Soutine were we? A pity because I love everything Corbin and King do. Maybe it’s just because we went to review it in its first week of opening and they were still finding their feet. Last, and by all means least, VIVI in Centre Point: one of the most short-lived restaurants I can remember. It closed after just 6 months! I think it meant well but it was a triumph of concept over taste or decent service. I’m still in therapy after that sherry trifle! At least it can no longer inflict any damage on paying customers.
CL: You’re right about Soutine. Despite sighting Maureen Lipman, I couldn’t label Soutine an experience of any note. Considering my near-obsession with The Delaunay, you’d hardly think the two restaurants were siblings.
A low point for me was the The Nag’s Head in Great Missenden (Roald Dahl territory). It poses as a foodie-pub, complete with Coravin wine list. However, it was through the floor in service terms. I was ignored for twenty minutes – not even offered a glass of water or brought a menu. An untrained serving lad walked up to my table and put a glass of red on it – to which I responded: how can this glass possibly be my order given no-one has even spoken to me yet? Blushing, he withdrew. Then back to the service vacuum. After 30 minutes, I just walked out. An absolute shocker.
Outstanding dish of the year
JS: Always a tough one to call. Perhaps the strozzapreti with pork and orange ragu at Norma? Or even that roast beef we had at 12:51… no, wait! That chicken with vin jaune sauce at The Sportsman. Yes, that was it. That was my dish of the year.
CL: My fish and chips at The Sportsman were equally impressive. Many other strong candidates to choose from. I re-visited Gravetye Manor in September (pictured above) and ordered a starter of lobster tail wrapped in fried vermicelli. It looked a bit like shredded wheat! Ha! But, truly: it was a thing of joy. Impeccably-cooked lobster rang with mouth-coating crunch bestowed by its Julienne-spring-roll encasement – creating an Asian seafood dish of remarkable quality. Clean but indulgently fatty, I could have eaten it four times over. Small wonder Gravetye continues to hold a Michelin star and its head chef Charles Coulombeau has just won the UK final of Le Taittinger Prix Culinaire competition.
Best overall dining experience of the year
JS: I’m sticking with The Sportsman on this. But I have to give honourable mentions to Ikarus in Salzburg and Le Clos des Sens in Annecy – both outstanding. I also had a lovely seafood lunch at Rick Stein Barnes with that wonderful view over the river. Meeting Alain Roux in the kitchen at The Waterside Inn was a personal highlight.
CL: The Sportsman is clearly a frontrunner. It’s an uncomplicated, pleasing environment with memorable food. I’d also have to nod to Gravetye Manor again. It was a lunch sitting and they plonked me among the “premium seats”, where the glass frontage of the conservatory overlooks their sprawling, magnificent gardens. With the vista, chilled white Burgundy and a delightful three courses of food, I was in dining nirvana for a couple of hours.
Any hopes or predictions for 2020?
JS: I’m not sure there’s much point in trend spotting but I think the obsessions with pasta and katsu curry will continue. Peruvian and Middle Eastern cuisine will continue to have their moment in the sun. I’ve heard a rumour from Ground Control that “seacuterie” will be the next Big Thing (shrimp sausages, oyster salami and the like) so we’ll see what happens there, but it could just be a fad. Whilst we’re on the subject of silly words, if you’ll permit me a small rant, one word I’d like to see banished from the lexicon in 2020 is “flexitarian.” There’s a time-honoured, simpler way of describing eating a bit of this and a bit of that. It’s called a balanced diet.
I daresay the Parisian scene seems to be bouncing back: visits to Semilla, Baieta and Benoit this year were all great, so I hope to see that continue. I still think your money goes further in mid-level London restaurants but Paris is getting its act together (if that’s not too much of a sweeping statement).
We’ll probably see more no- and low-alcoholic drinks and plant-based food as these move away from the fringes and become ‘mainstream’. Perhaps more food halls in the vein of Arcade Food Theatre as business rates continue to cripple restaurants and the high street suffers. Then there’s the dreaded B word. More chains and independents will cease to exist. But I’m still hopeful that restaurants will weather the storm. I wonder too if there will be a backlash against 2019’s ridiculous fashion for abundant foliage in restaurants – seriously, more and more restaurants are turning into mini rainforests it seems. As for new openings, I think all eyes will be on Soho in 2020: we have the new Corbin and King restaurant to look forward to, as well as second branches of Bancone and our beloved Noble Rot!
CL: I too lament the introduction of words such as “flexitarian”. It sounds like the sort of description a woke student would ascribe him- or herself right before no-platforming Germaine Greer.
As to trends and traits, mackerel ten different ways hasn’t gone away yet. Yawn. Dining on boats will inevitably continue, in the vein of London Shell Co. A contact of mine is involved in concrete and they’ve revealed that a new Thames-based dining experience is about to launch – it’ll be a floating restaurant at the City end, like a barge-jetty hybrid, with some serious backers behind it.
Per your praise for Rick Stein Barnes, people simply like eating beside water. It adds a frisson of something. We can therefore expect restaurateurs to further exploit that most essential of human desires.
All photography by J A Smith and Cristian Ley with the exception of the photo of Gravetye Manor at the top which has been provided courtesy of Gravetye Manor.
This article was published in December 2019 and expresses our views at that time.