From the looks of things, London’s dining scene is on fire: places like Gymkhana, Lyle’s, Hedone, Dinner, and the Clove Club are receiving loads of international press. But today, as some of today’s greatest chefs convene in London for the announcement of the World’s 50 Best List, the editor of the Observer Food Monthly explores the darker side of his city’s new wave.
Big trouble in London’s little Chinatown. Covent Garden’s Food for Thought soon to be gone for good. The next time you hear another braying, tattooed, bearded boy or hipster girl witter about London being the cooking capital of the world, perhaps spare a thought for those being left behind. Because they won’t. Dirty burger places, ramen bars, and cask-aged negroni joints are washing east and south through the city like a foodie tsunami. These new arrivals supply curated coffee, home-cellared charcuterie, and £10 chocolate bars. But at what cost? Follow the craft beer and yoga mats and you will find the usual middle-class money.
Rents are not just rising in the east. Chef Henry Harris of the excellent Racine in Knightsbridge had to close, not because his cooking isn’t brilliant, it is, but no one lives there anymore. West London has turned out the lights. Whole streets and blocks are dark because the owners are never there except for a few days for shopping or to avoid tax. The Prius-owning peoples have been forced further east, obliterating anything authentic, turning honest Italian cafés into dude food places with wi-fi, wild sourdough sandwiches, and 10-year-old oolong at ten times the cost. Property prices and the companies that control them are a plague in most parts of London. There is a simple profit blueprint: strip out the small shops and replace with restaurants: identikit places serving identikit people in identikit parts of town. Even Soho is having its soul sucked out. Everything that made it interesting—the cafés, the clip joints, the grubby corners have been architected, crushed, brushed away, and made safe for the consumer class. It makes me sort of sick. Street markets mutate into street food for anyone with parents rich enough to buy them a Citroen van, their hair tied in a top knot, making a living from someone else’s stolen life.
The real deal family places are forced to close because they can’t charge those prices, pay those rents, can’t borrow from the bank of mummy and daddy. Any Cantonese café in Chinatown will have seen its rent forced up by 400 per cent. Few will survive their next review. There is only so much roast pork or duck and rice you can sell. The same with Food for Thought, the last oasis of whole foods in the homogenous tourist trap that is Covent Garden. Gone for good in three weeks. Ironically, when the rest of the world finally caught on to kale.
Why should you care, you think, as you drink your small-producer-grown natural wine? Because London wasn’t like that. That wasn’t why we came. Different classes and communities grew up side-by-side. Hell, they went to the same schools. But as social housing was sold and the local shops started selling red quinoa salads, first the poor and then the old were pushed out. If you are anything like me, you are likely next.
I am aware I am lucky. I can afford biodynamic chicken from once-blighted Bermondsey Spa, but FFS let’s occasionally remember that for many, maybe most, food is simply protein: fuel for their family. They can buy ten genocide chickens for the price of mine. They can’t afford to care if it’s been free to run around. Flabby will have to be fine. At the same time as the old East End has been swamped with greedy people like me, tens of thousands of Londoners are having to rely on hand-outs while being bad-mouthed by their new neighbors.
So perhaps, please, sometimes, shut the fuck up about the brilliant small place doing small plates on your street where there used to be a fishmonger, a butcher, a grocer, a hardware store. Where there once was a community. Me, I am heading to Chinatown while I still can. And, no, I won’t tell you my “secret” cafe which has always done the best “bone broth” noodles for around a fiver not £15. Ask St John’s sainted Fergus Henderson. He knows it, too.