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(Un)sustainability in London’s new restaurant openings

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London, some prejudicially claim, is the world’s best city for restaurants. Forget Paris, Tokyo, New York, LA, Chicago, Lima, Barcelona or Hong Kong, it’s London. This bias is understandable: London has not only the widest breadth of cuisines, but amazing depth in each one. Pick a cuisine, even an obscure one, and there are restaurants from the Michelin starred to the food truck and everything in between. London is food culture diversity personified. It’s also quality personified: the calibre of cooking on display at the capital right now is as good as it’s ever been.

And yet, as we segue out of the pandemic, the pace of London’s new restaurant openings is a cause for concern. A few years back I was speaking to a friend of mine, an old hand in the industry, and we chatted about the website Hot Dinners. They have a useful list of upcoming restaurant openings in town and, frankly, they don’t usually miss a beat. About this time three years ago we discussed how the list had a whopping 30 new restaurants slated to open in the month of September alone. That’s a new restaurant opening every day. Many had a storming first year and built up enough savings to survive the pandemic no-one expected. But many closed.

It all just sounded so unsustainable. A new restaurant opening every day? Where were they getting the money – and the staff – from? It couldn’t possibly continue, could it? That was three years ago. Now we are once again staring down the barrel of unsustainability in the restaurant industry.

maybe, in the best city for eating out in the world, we can just take a little break from the pace of it all

The ONS estimated there were over 100,000 hospitality job vacancies from April to June of this year alone. That’s more than five times the amount from December 2020 to February 2021 and much greater still than pre-pandemic levels.

But now, once again, in the midst of Covid, a staffing crisis that threatens dozens of business, and the shit-show that is Brexit, Hot Dinners is listing 34 new restaurants due to open in September 2021.

Did we really learn nothing over the past 18 months? Seriously?! I get 10 openings – that’s one every three days, or 15 openings, that’s a few every week – but more than one new opening a day, for 30 days? I recently saw a banal piece of pseudo-journalism on the topic which essentially read: “as long as these new openings are paying their rent bill, then that’s fine”. A short-sighted mantra which frankly doesn’t help when March 2022 rears its ugly head and, oh, what’s that? The rate freeze is over? Time to settle your tab which, I’m guessing, is enormous?

Either we struck gold on a new patch of mega rich investors happy to pump a few years’ worth of cash into these 34 new businesses or we are going to see another swathe of closures come spring 2022, and no one actually wants that.

Some of the openings of late have been those god-awful ‘concept’ restaurants. The high budget, splashy monstrosities with their ‘multi-sensory dining’ (which, by the way, is all dining) and, in the case of one particular Ivy branch, their racist marketing. And yes, I have a problem with Batman and the Monopoly man occupying space in London which might otherwise be used for more valuable independent endeavours: an edgy start-up getting a chance on the main stage in Central is more meaningful to London than ensuring some fat cats in an offshore investment fund get their rent cheque.

So these and many more new openings will come, and of those, dozens won’t survive their first year.

There has to be some hope, surely? A smattering of new openings promises renewed hope for joyous, old school hospitality. Manzi’s by Corbin and King, Sessions Arts Club, the reopening of the Colony Grill Room at The Beaumont and Trattoria Brutto by Russell Norman – all restaurants which may yet signify that the old ways are still the best and which are being opened by seasoned pros with a track record of success. Meanwhile, and I’m not sure how I feel about this one, JKS is re-opening food hall Arcade at Centrepoint (pictured above in 2019), the site of many a failed ‘concept’ and an idea that was once lauded by Hot Dinners and Eater to be the saviour of London but it sort of fizzled out even before the pandemic. But if anyone can make a go of it, surely it’s JKS, who seemingly never put a foot wrong.

So here I am, holding my breath for the industry, praying to the restaurant gods that it doesn’t all go tits up, that the wonderful bright sparks aren’t extinguished before they have a chance and that maybe, in the best city for eating out in the world, we take just a little break from the pace of it all.

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