Feeding frenzy

Britain is bursting to the seams with fancy restaurants, but still we're hungry for more. And the culinary fat cats behind every new opening are getting fatter and fatter
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The Independent Culture
Where will you have lunch today? Seated at your desk with a carry- out bag of Pret a Manger sandwiches (you poor, sad workaholic) or flooring a steak frites in your local Cafe Rouge or Browns or Chez Gerard? And where will you dine this evening? At your kitchen table with an ageing pork chop from the fridge and some McCain's chips, or at one of Sir Terence Conran's still-trendy Gastrodome palaces beside Tower Bridge? And will your breakfast tomorrow be a boiled egg and soldiers chez vous; or a hearty platter of Toulouse sausages and hash browns at one of the flash new eateries that's about to spring up round the corner from your fashionable duplex?

It's apparently likely these days, that your answers will all be "the latter". But if you're so weirdly old-fashioned that you still like eating in, still perversely prefer the home-made and the personal-amateur approach to the preparation and consumption of food, don't panic: you won't behave like this for much longer. According to a hundred infallible social-trend signifiers, the British attitude to eating in restaurants has undergone a complete makeover. From now on, we're all going to be spending a lot more time in the company of the a la carte, the amusing House White, the cheese board and the waiter called Rutger who, blithely risking a satirical and/or abusive response, boldly asks: "Would you care to hear today's specials?"

Restaurants are hip as never before - not through sightings of opinion- forming celebrities languidly dismembering crab craws in Shaftesbury Avenue, but because of some frankly incredible financial coups. For a month or so, City pages have been full of whisperings, rumours, confirmations and stunned analyses of a series of mergers, floats and takeovers. One day, Mogens Tholstrup sells his flash, post-yuppie troughs - Daphne's and Pasha and The Collection - to the Belgo chain for pounds 5.5m in cash and pounds 3.8m in shares. Barely is the ink dry on the Belgo chequebook stub when its boss, Luke Johnson (who started out as co-founder of Pizza Express), buys The Ivy and Le Caprice from Charles Corbin and Jeremy King, their co-owners (and perma-smiling "greeters") for pounds 13.4m. The Pharmacy restaurant, started in Notting Hill earlier this year by the fashionable troika of Damien Hirst, Matthew Freud and Liam Carson, is not only being floated on the Stock Exchange via a "shell company" (its worth assessed at anything between pounds 7 and pounds 10m), but its owners are hoping to open similar, medication-filled, pill-theme-but-strangely-no-Pils premises in Germany, France and America. Terence Conran is about to open his newest London chow-plaza, the Coq D'Argent, this month, and another in Paris in October, edging the value of his gustatory empire over the pounds 100m mark. Marco Pierre White is threatening to take his restaurants public to the tune of pounds 30m. And as for Nico Ladenis and Gary Rhodes.... For many top chefs, acquiring the three letters plc seems temporarily to outweigh the attraction of acquiring a third Michelin star.

But how, I can hear you asking, how in God's name can these figures be justified? What insanely optimistic projections could possibly conclude that The Pharmacy, for all the excellence of its cuisine and the comeliness of its waiters in their bow-tied theatre gowns, is worth 10 million quid - or, more to the point, will still be worth anything like that in two years' time? Restaurants - the accepted wisdom goes - are more subject to the whims of fashion and the caprices of popular taste than any other industry, even the clothing trade. Why should clued-up City investors be throwing money at high-concept eating houses whose popularity could at any moment disappear, like the waiting-list at Aubergine after Gordon Ramsay's departure, or the froth on your cappuccino? How can Terence Conran keep installing new restaurants in the metropolis at the rate of 23 a month? Won't the first signs of recession or decelerated economy drive people out of restaurants and back to the cheap comfort zone of microwaves and Delia Smith recipes?

The answer lies in the demographics. We are, it seems, in the middle of a spectacular sea-change in the way the British eat. The trend is most prevalent in London, admittedly, but the rest of the nation is catching up fast. The restaurant trade is currently in the throes of a colossal bull market. Currently worth pounds 23 billion, it is set to increase by 24 per cent over the next four years. It's fantastic. Not so much a bull market as a three-course Rib of Beef With Shallots and Polenta Finished With a Madeira Sauce market. And for every pooh-poohing City sceptic who says the eating-out boom won't sustain, there's a specialist in restaurant trend analysis who thinks we're only at the hors d'oeuvre stage.

At Foodservice Intelligence, one such trend-spotting agency, Peter Backman recently told a Sunday paper about the concept of the "food dollar" and the "food pound" - i.e. the amount we each spend on food, and in what form we acquire it. "Twenty five years ago in the United States," he said, "29 cents of the food dollar was spent on eating out, and now that figure is 50 cents. In Britain, it is only 29p in the pound and that is growing by up to a penny a year. We are about 25 years behind, and there is a lot of growth to come."

You could, however, have guessed otherwise from looking about you. London in late summer, in the last blissful throes of the alfresco lunch, is simply crammed with restaurants crammed with people who might not long ago have been doing something else. Once, young wage slaves went to the pub after work. Then the wine bar trade started up, as male amour propre demanded classier drinks and female drinkers demanded less smoky, macho atmospheres. Now, every new restaurant seems to have its own bar area. Conran's Pont de la Tour and Bibendum both have an "Oyster Bar" where you can drink champagne or Czech beers for pounds 5. Friday night drinkers in the streets around the BBC, instead of plunging into the fetid gloom of the local pubs, now decamp en masse to Great Portland Street and the downstairs bars at Mash, the newest restaurant opened by Oliver Peyton, who made his name with the Atlantic, whose focal point is its bar and its wicked way with vodkatinis. Drive around Oxford Street at 6.30 pm any evening and you'll find the enormous Japanese restaurant Wagamama (which was launched with City money) pullulating with drinkers.

And just as restaurants now come with bars the way labradors come with fleas, so fashionable shops cannot operate these days, it seems, without a cool canteen attached. Joe's Cafe, the archly-titled restaurant in Fulham Road, was where shoppers at Joseph (Ettedgui's) were supposed to go to chill out after looking through all that exciting grey knitwear. Then Nicole Farhi opened a restaurant inside her shop. So, soon after, in a bit of a rush, did Alberta Ferretti, French Connection, Donna Karan and Giorgio Armani in their London outlets. The hyper-trendy Manhattan-style Urban Outfitters shop in High Street Kensington sports a cafe. Borders, the new uber-bookshop in Oxford Street, will feed those in the thrall of the unputdownable.

Once, within living memory, you took your date to a pub for a pre-dinner gin-and-tonic, or a wine bar for a spritzer or glass of Kir Royale, before approaching the shrine-like doors of a restaurant, within which all was hushed and deferential, and light classics or cool vibraphones tinkled on the speakers. Once, dining-out was a rare and expensive treat, mostly confined to birthdays, anniversaries and/or protestations of love. There were three courses and wine rituals and strict protocols of behaviour (can you believe there was a time when lady guests were expected to order what they wanted by shyly informing their gentleman friend, rather than telling the waiter?) Now eating in restaurants is what you do between drinking, talking and greeting other people as they arrive to join your party.

Some think it's all to do with women - or, at least, women who do not share men's capacity to absorb large quantities of drink without eating. Rather than listen to their girlfriends say one more time, "Darling, I have got to eat something or I'll die" at seven in the evening, men will try the radical solution of going to a restaurant after work, staying there, and letting the starving consort pick away at a Caesar Salad if she feels like it. Conversely, those wanting to circumvent what remains of the liquor-license laws, and drink after midnight, know the best way is to park yourself at a table in Hamine, in the heart of Soho, and drink till 3 am, surrounded by green-haired Japanese youth watching Tokyo game shows.

Metropolitan trends apart, we all, as a nation, have started eating out more. Among other statistics quoted in the Sunday press are the projections of the Marketpower trend-watchers. According to them, the number of meals served in British restaurants will increase from 461m to 488m in the next three years. Who is doing all this eating? It seems to be the middle-range, middle-income, ordinary, middle-classes. Given the right premises, they'll eat in them. Which is why Bass, Whitbread and Grand Met, the biggest owners of pubs in the UK, have been buying up middle-market restaurant chains: Chez Gerard, Break for the Border, Bella Pasta, Browns, Pelican, TGI Friday's, Mamma Amalfi - they've all flourished in the provinces, just as their share value has steadily improved in the last couple of years. Only Cafe Flo and Pierre Victoire have run into trouble.

Families who take their children to the Pizza Express on Saturday lunchtimes now have a range of other places (complete with kids' games and crayons) at which to spend their modest pounds 25-30 per visit. As salaries have risen, the relative cost of eating out at lunchtime has decreased; you can now buy sandwiches in Cranks that cost more than the three-course Thai lunch available in Cambridge Circus. When even the coolest new restaurants offer reasonable prix-fixe menus between pounds 15 and pounds 25, they're within the budgets of foodies un-blessed by an expense account.

"At the top end of the market, [diners] do not want to go to a chain," said Luke Johnson last month. He has a point. Taking Hillary Clinton out to dinner at TGI Friday's rather than the Pont de le Tour would indeed be a gaffe. One naturally pays a premium for exclusivity, the personal touch, the certainty that it's Marco or Gordon or Gary in person who is putting the last sliver of apple garnish around your creme brulee. But Mr Johnson is in the vanguard of perhaps the most significant trend of all - the up-market restaurant chain, disseminating the best cuisine through a couple of dozen outlets from Totnes to Thirsk. He already plans to launch 20 Belgo bars, bringing mussels, mayonnaise, frites and Belgian beer to grateful diners. There is nothing to stop him trying to recreate the menu, the style and the ambience of the Ivy and Le Caprice in Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle... The signs are that a newly discriminating population of eaters- out would welcome such a move. And then it would be time for the Mezzo chain, the Mash chain, the Quo Vadis chain, the Pharmacy chain...

There's no telling where all this gastronomic expansion will end. Will we adopt the habit - now standard in American big cities - of breakfasting in a local restaurant every morning? (Answer: we will once we get over the working-class associations of the greasy-spoon caff and the cholesterol- rich fry-up). We might become like Joey and Chandler, flatmates in the American TV series Friends, who share a joke thus: "What are your plans for dinner?". "Well - we could eat in". "Yeah - that'd be nice". Whereupon they both burst out laughing. But as the British business appetite for investing and expanding in restaurants gets more and more ravenous, the British appetite for eating out is keeping pace. The possibility that we may finish up poor and obese, crippled either by bankrupcy or indigestion is, for the moment, off the menu.