2023 has been yet another turbulent year, both in general and in the world of hospitality. Amid wider threats such as international conflicts and the emergence of AI, the difficulties already caused by Brexit and Covid calcified further with the cost of living crisis and inflationary pressures. We have also tragically lost some highly-respected restaurateurs, including Felice Pollano who had owned the legendary Ciao Bella since 1999, Nico Ladenis and, most recently, Russell Norman (not just ‘The Restaurant Man’ but a Renaissance Man).
There have been record closures across the nation, from neighbourhood bistros to seemingly indomitable institutions: this year we’ve said goodbye to Pensons in Worcestershire, Rosso in Manchester, The India Club on The Strand; in January 2024 Le Gavroche will be serving its last Soufflé Suissesse; relative newbies like Native at Browns, Hicce and Oxeye have gone prematurely; and then there have been countless other independent businesses that just quietly slipped away in the night (Archipelago, Gibson Bar, Bowling Bird, Augustus Harris, The Long Lane to name but a few). The economic headwinds haven’t been the only contributory factor: employee fraud allegedly caused the sudden closure of The Hardwick in Abergavenny, and some pubs are under threat of closure due to landlord intransigence (e.g. The Harrison in King’s Cross).
The recent Autumn Statement isn’t exactly going to help either: whilst an increase in the National Living Wage is of course welcome for employees next year, without VAT cuts restaurants will need to push prices up again to fund it. The economic constipation will simply continue for consumers and businesses alike.
In more positive news, there have been some fantastic openings this year (more on which below). There are also tentative signs that restaurateurs are entering 2024 with renewed confidence: The George in Fitzrovia, Cadet and Crispin have just started to open on Mondays; Claude and Lucy Bosi are opening Josephine in Fulham early next year; The Tamil Prince has just opened sister pub The Tamil Crown; Perilla in Newington Green is opening Morchella in Exmouth Market; the wonderful Amaro is opening a second bar called Twice Shy; Mildred’s, Kricket and Roti King are also expanding their groups; and of course, there will be Jeremy King’s highly anticipated return with The Park, Arlington and Simpson’s in the Strand.
Outside of London there’s a raft of new restaurants to expect: chef Merlin Labron-Johnson will be opening an “Osip 2.0” at a bigger site in Somerset, littlefrench in Bristol is opening a new venture York Place (hopefully as soon as December this year) and Tom Barnes will be opening Skof in Manchester.
And whilst we’re still shocked by Russell Norman’s sudden passing, his trade mark generosity of spirit will surely live on at Brutto, including his £5 Negronis and free spritzes for solo diners (the antithesis of a certain chef who made the headlines earlier this year for penalising solo diners).
Palate’s best new restaurant of 2023
Traditionally, this is the new opening which impressed Palate’s writers the most and has the potential to become an iconic, timeless restaurant. This year’s runners up include Papi, Mountain, The Midland Grand Dining Room, Noble Rot Mayfair, Chishuru (now in Fitzrovia) and 64 Goodge Street, all of which have been wonderful right from the start. But after consulting an entirely scientific quorum of writers (er, three), the view was unanimous: this year’s winner is The Devonshire in Soho.
Some readers may remember when Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty joined forces to form ‘The Traveling Wilburys’. The Devonshire is the hospitality equivalent. Combine Oisín Rogers, Charlie Caroll, Ashley Palmer-Watts and master butcher George Donnelly and you’ve basically got a recipe for success already. Having managed to get a table before the mainstream critics weighed in, it was immediately clear that this would be an instant classic. Beautifully cooked and well-sourced meat, jengas of langoustines, Grand Marnier soufflés flambéed tableside, Guinness-fuelled shenanigans in the pub downstairs: what could possibly go wrong?
This year we also include an Extremely Delicious Honourable Mention for Bouchon Racine. This excellent restaurant by Henry Harris and Dave Strauss opened in late 2022; alas slightly too late to be considered for this award last year, and it is technically out of scope for 2023. So, we’ve essentially made up this extra award just for Bouchon Racine – but it deserves it for being so damn good. (And just a couple of pro-tips if you’re having difficulty getting a table: it’s always worth asking for any cancelled tables on the day and the pub downstairs serves some of the same dishes.)
Perspectives from our writers
This year a few of Palate’s contributors offer their thoughts on emerging trends, local discoveries, what impressed them this year and what they’re looking forward to next year…
We have had some fabulous new openings this year. Other than The Devonshire, top of my list would be Mountain from Tomos Parry, 64 Goodge Street and Papi (which I reviewed in the summer and continues to impress).
2023 also saw the well-deserved rise of Bouchon Racine (one of my top five restaurants in London) and a stylish new home for Joké Bakaru’s wonderful Chishuru.
Next year I’m fully expecting The Devonshire to continue to smash it out of the park given their flying start and the dream team behind it, and still live in hope that husband and wife team AngloThai will find somewhere permanent; their residency at 180 Strand this summer was sublime.
I’m also very excited about Jeremy King’s relaunch of Simpson’s in the Strand, and the newly-opened Cafe Kitty (Kitty Fisher’s naughty little sister) which is already well on the way to becoming a Soho ‘hidden gem’.
Of course, all of this is overshadowed by the loss of visionary restaurateur Russell Norman. Like much of the industry I am still in shock; it doesn’t seem possible that he is no longer with us. Negronis will forever be raised with a silent ‘cin-cin.’
As mentioned, The Devonshire has to be the opening of the year. This pub is already an absolute star, with Oisín (Osh) and Charlie doing things right. You can’t leave without a sing-song in the back room and with a terrace space opening next year, the best is probably yet to come.
Bistro Freddie has to be up there for me as an outstanding opening. It’s like they’ve taken my favourite elements of restaurants and made everything perfect, from the candlelight to the low music to the thrum of the kitchen: it’s all immaculate.
I was lucky enough to enjoy a ‘four hands’ dinner at A. Wong which was very special, as well as a fantastic meal at Annwn in Narberth, Wales. In their own way, each spoke to a love of not just cooking, but the pleasure of eating well and the joy to be found in food.
Two stand-out dishes for me came in the form of incredible plates of fish. The first was a turbot served at the revitalised Aulis: with a turbot mousseline and split sauce, it was a gorgeous plate. I also had the pleasure of an Ikejime trout at Evelyn’s Table. It’s a method of killing the fish that preserves the texture of the flesh in such a way it feels almost raw, even when cooked. It was a marvel.
As for bars, whilst the new Kwant is seriously impressive, The Nipperkin under 20 Berkeley is truly exceptional. The menu spans a range of fabulous British ingredients alongside a handful of international flavours, creating cocktails like the Fig Leaf (with Cornish rum, foraged pineapple weed and fig leaf cream) and the Padron and Shiso (with mezcal, Norfolk shiso spirit and Cambridgeshire Padron pepper liqueur).
It hasn’t all been positive though. Getting served completely raw chicken at a new restaurant opening wasn’t a particularly high point, but my personal grievances with dining aside, for me the biggest loss this year was the passing of Russell Norman. He pioneered so much of what we now take for granted in London’s restaurant scene and did it with such grace and easy cheer.
As we know, Jeremy King is set to return with three new restaurants in 2024 and I’m desperate to try all three of them. There have also been a few new places which have opened lately that I’m yet to try like Akara from the Akoko team and the new reimagined Ikoyi at 180 Strand.
My new discovery of 2023 has to be Chinese Gourmet in the otherwise colossally bleak Canary Wharf. Brilliant hand-pulled noodles and roujiamo all made in this dinky little shoebox.
Though the highlight of any year will always be Wilsons in Bristol. It is one of the finest restaurants I have ever been to. Jan is potentially the hardest-working chef that I’ve ever known who still managed to find the time to shoot game and fillet a 132kg tuna. His wife Mary runs the farm, so everything on your plate comes from their hands if not from just down the road. Wilsons is the reason I began to write about food and for those last six years, it’s been a substantial part of my life; a standard by which I measure all other dishes.
Other highlights for me have been Whole Beast at The Fat Walrus who have now found a home at The Montpelier in Peckham. In a scene awash with mediocre barbecue, Sam and Alicja put these chumps to shame. Every single one of their dishes is thoughtful, playful and underpinned by a personality that’s entirely theirs. While I’m at it, everyone who bleats on about the best burger in London has never been to Whole Beast and it shows.
The coveted-to-a-cringe Singburi is truly brilliant. I love the feeling of having almost zero clue as to what’s going on and then frantically reading up on the dishes later if I’ve not crammed the night before. Themla, the Undisputed Matriarch, absolutely commands that floor. Just make sure to take a couple of boxes of regular chocolate Magnums. She loves those. The room is filled with people thankful to be there which is no mean feat because it’s terminally fully-booked.
I am obsessed with suya and Suuyar in Peckham is the best I’ve had to date. And I’ve trawled the city in the name of it. Kola is a master of his craft and I find myself actively hijacking/ruining conversations by gushing about it all the time.
As for 2024, Crisp Pizza will be opening a proper sit-down restaurant and I’m losing my mind over it. Plus, in the name of being ‘that guy’ I’m not allowed to say where. Yet.
J A Smith
If 2022 saw the return of devilled eggs, 2023 was the year of the snail. It’s been pleasing to see this little gastropod have its moment in the sun this year, whether this be the bolognese at Story Cellar, the flatbread at Bistro Freddie, the bourguignon at The Midland Grand Dining Room (one of my best dishes of the year), or, of course, the revamped L’Escargot.
Speaking of sun, a memorable moment was sitting outside Sargasso in May enjoying salt cod beignets and a glass of crisp splashy-splashy. Indeed, all eyes are now on Margate. I can barely keep up with the exciting developments there but I was impressed by The Fort Road Hotel and Sète (although only the wine bar was open at the time, and so a return visit for the restaurant is mandatory).
My other standout dish of the year has to be the scallop with lentils and beurre blanc at 64 Goodge Street. This restaurant really hit the ground running in August (though I’d expect nothing less of the Woodhead Group) and this dish in particular is divine. I went back just a few weeks ago and couldn’t resist ordering it again.
Though, for an overall dining experience, nothing could really beat the pressed duck extravaganza at Otto’s back in the spring. Otto’s is possibly my favourite restaurant of all time: it’s such a life-affirming place run by the lovely and irreplaceable Otto Tepasse and Elin Hansen. Final meals at Marcus and Le Gavroche were both special and emotional.
Outside of central London, I was pleased to finally make it to Les Deux Garçons (the Bouchon Racine of Crouch End?), and I had great experiences at Holm in Somerset and Tallow near Tunbridge Wells. Internationally, Le Clarence in Paris was truly exceptional (though didn’t do wonders for the waistline or bank balance).
As for cocktail bars, Larry’s at the re-opened National Portrait Gallery and the new Kwant impressed me generally, though if I had to pick out a specific cocktail of the year I’d probably say the inspired bone marrow martini at Eve Bar (located underneath Adam Handling’s Frog in Covent Garden). Savoury mixology has been fashionable for a while but Josh Linfitt is really pushing out all the stops now at Eve Bar. The wonderful Crossroads has now settled in to its new (and far bigger) site in Newington Green and next year they’re publishing their first book! I’m also very excited about Amaro’s new sister bar opening next year in Earl’s Court. 2023 also saw a massive increase in bar takeovers (my favourite being Brian Silva’s guest shift at Amaro). It’s such a great concept as it’s mutually beneficial for all parties involved (not least the customer), so hopefully we’ll see more of this next year.
2024 should also see new legislation banning fake reviews (at last) and maybe – just maybe – we’ll finally see the end of the (frankly unforgiveable) £18 pre-mixed Negroni in high-end hotel bars. My next Negroni will be back at Brutto, thinking back to all the times Russell kindly got me a seat at the bar no matter how busy it was. He is sorely missed.
Well… thank you all for reading, and just a quick reminder that if you’re dining out this December and see an extra pound added to your bill for Streetsmart, please do pay it. This scheme, now in its 25th year, is such an easy way of helping the homeless when they need it most at this time of year.
This roundup was published on 1 December 2023 and reflects the writers’ views at that time.
Photos by J A Smith and Amanda David.
Edited by J A Smith.