Are restaurants the butterflies of the business world, or the cockroaches? The first to go, or the last to survive? The year isn't quite over yet, but at this point, they are doing a good job of both disappearing and thriving. Look at the empire-building Tom Aikens, who earlier this year expanded his Chelsea portfolio with a shiny new eco-chippy, Tom's Place, only to see it close six months later. His other two restaurants went into administration last month. They have since been bought by a new investor, but it has made everybody jittery.
Not that the crunch has stopped some of the world's best-known chefs from opening seriously high-money London restaurants: Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester, Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, Jean-Christophe Ansanay-Alex's Ambassade de L'Ile, and Dieter Müller's Andaman. Autumn's market mayhem has left their clientele bruised and bleeding, but still spending. "'Meltdown Monday' was my best day's business all year," said one City-side Italian chef. "Everyone was crying... into their Sassicaia."
One of the more predictable side-effects has been a new breed of more personal, pocket-friendly restaurants, including the cute little Archway Italian, 500; the bistroish Market in Camden Town; L'Absinthe in Primrose Hill; L'Enclume off-shoot, Rogan & Company in Cumbria; and the perpetually booked-out Giaconda Dining Room in Denmark Street. Gastropubs seem more popular than ever – not just in London, but right across the country. In Nottingham, for example, the Moleface Pub Company has astutely judged the mood with two instant successes, Larwood & Voce in Trent Bridge and The Lord Nelson in Burton Joyce, while this year's Harden's UK Restaurant Guide cited Yorkshire as Britain's top county with 113 note-worthy restaurants.
Chinatown has responded with the arrival of the classy Haozhan, the rustic Leong's Legends and the down-to-earth Baozi Inn, but the real trend has been to high-end Japanese, such as Hakuba, Soseki, Tsunami in Charlotte Street and Alan Yau's high-glam Sake No Hana (see above). Best of the bunch is Gary Yau's Aaya in Soho, where cool décor, exquisite sushi and creative twists on Japanese classics won it Oriental Restaurant of the Year at this year's London Restaurant Awards.
Another traditionally cheap food is rising fast, as Mexican shakes off its cheesy image to emerge as the fast food of the future at Wahaca, Chilango in the City, and Benito's Hat in Fitzrovia. Also giving glimpses of a new, healthier and meat-free future is haute vegetarian at Vanilla Black in the City (vegetarian! In the City!) and vegan raw-food specialists Saf at Shoreditch, who can turn something as naff as slow-roasted beetroot into an iconic dish.
Another response to the economic downturn has been to multiply. This has been the year of the mini-chain – the bracelet, if you like – with Jamie's Italian now up and running in Oxford and Bath, and Spanish providores Brindisa opening smart little Spanish restaurants in Soho and South Kensington. The Club Gascon group also opened its fourth Croque Gascon last week in the enormous Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd's Bush, one of London's three big new food precincts for 2008, along with the born-again St Pancras and the recently unveiled King's Place in King's Cross.
So what's next? The smart money is on Alan Yau, who, having sold Hakkasan and Yauatcha, is now investing in... bread. Yau and Milan's acclaimed baker Rocco Princi have just launched the Soho outpost of the chic Princi Bakery. A tomato pizzette for around a quid from the Armani of bread? I'm going to miss this recession like crazy. '
New restaurant of the year: Quo Vadis
Sam and Eddie Hart, the brothers behind Spanish treasures Fino and Barrafina, have turned this iconic 1920s restaurant into the great British grill room, lightened with rays of Mediterranean sunshine. There is a genuine sense of hospitality, a savvy crowd, and a menu full of things you really feel like eating: truffled scrambled eggs, turbot with salsa verde, sirloin with chips and watercress. The ideal modern British restaurant, with an arty Soho edge.
Chef of the year: Angela Hartnett
After residing in the "Whatever happened to...?" category for a while, Gordon Ramsay's right-hand girl is making up for lost time. A year after closing her Michelin-starred restaurant at The Connaught, Hartnett has made not one, but two critically acclaimed comebacks. First came Mayfair's Murano, where her dazzling, assured Italianish cooking seems destined for more Michelin success, in spite of the corporate dullness of the room. Less ambitious, but just as successful, is her likeable bistro-bar-deli formula in Ramsay's new boutique hotel, York & Albany. Hartnett is on a roll – a ciabatta roll stuffed with porchetta, but still a roll.
Chef to watch: Andy Waters at Edmund's
When Andy Waters first opened Edmund's, in Henley-in-Arden in 2002, it gained a Michelin star in just six months. Nevertheless, the restaurant closed in 2006, and Waters consulted for the highly rated Birmingham Italian, Cielo. Now Edmund's has re-emerged in the city centre. While Waters is not a household name outside his home turf (yet), local critics rank his cooking (belly, trotter and fillet of Wiltshire pork with Calvados infusion; cod boulangère; Bramley apple soufflé) right up there with local heroes Simpson's and Purnell's.
Most overlooked: Anthony's
Anthony Flinn's eponymous restaurant is one of those fine Yorkshire restaurants Harden's was talking about, yet another year has passed without even a single Michelin star. You're sleeping with the wrong people, mate. Or – here's a thought – maybe Michelin doesn't make any difference.
Wine list of the year: Princess Victoria
In a year that saw the arrival of some pretty serious gastropubs, this lovingly restored 180-year-old former gin palace stands out as something special. Chef James McLean serves earthy, un-mucked-about-with pub food, while former UK Sommelier of the Year Matt Wilkin matches it with the wine list of your dreams. The 350-strong list goes from boutiquey Rieslings to small but earthy Rhône Valley wines, and Wilkin is as proud of his lower end as the upper reaches.
Recession restaurant of the year: Giaconda Dining Room
A tiny bistro in London's "Tin Pan Alley" gets a modest £80,000 reno by a chef who thought his best days were ' behind him, and what happens? Packed like sardines. After cooking for the Roux brothers and at Tour d'Argent in Paris, Paul Merrony returned home to Oz to be become one of the major forces of the 1990s Sydney dining scene. Now he's back here cooking great-value dishes such as ham-hock hash, crisped pig's trotters and roast chicken for two. A £1 cover charge takes care of bread, olives and carafes of sparkling water, and the well-chosen wines have a flat charge on top rather than a mark-up. More like this, please.
Bargain of the year: Cha Cha Moon
When Alan Yau (of Hakkasan and Yauatcha) opened this fast and furious communal Chinese noodle bar in April, every dish on the menu was just £3.50, the same price Yau charged for yakisoba noodles at his very first Wagamama 16 years ago. So have a guess at the new price – £4.50? Do I hear £6.50? Nope, it's still £3.50 a dish for sizzling char kway teow rice noodles, prawn guotie dumplings, or tea-smoked jasmine chicken noodles. It's join-the-queue dining and it's still bargain central.
The worst seat in the house: Behind Buddha's bum at Buddha Bar
Normally I can sit anywhere – next to the loo, in a draught, jammed up against the piano player. But the giant statue of Buddha takes up so much space at London's new Buddha Bar that a dark abyss is created to his rear. No disrespect, but Buddha's bum is not the Eye of Buddha I wish to contemplate while dealing with mediocre food.
The 'What recession?' award: L'Anima
On paper, it should not work. It is in the City, relying on those who have lost their bonuses. It is high-priced, with an Italian menu laced with luxury ingredients such as wild sea bass, sea urchin and truffles. It has no celebrity chef, although Francesco Mazzei received good-to-mixed reviews at St Alban's. But here at L'Anima, Mazzei's slick, rich, Italian cooking and the minimalist, modern Claudio Silvestrin décor comes together like San Daniele prosciutto and sweet melon, already picking up best newcomer awards from Harden's and Square Meal.
The coronary & cholesterol award for best chips: The Lord Nelson
This has been a very good year for chips, with Heston Blumenthal's log-like, thrice-cooked, state-of-the-art examples inspiring deep-fryers around the country. Memorable versions were plentiful, but deep down, I like my chips a little less perfect, a little misshapen, cooked in beef dripping and tasting of potato. The award goes to Nottingham's Lord Nelson, for its £2.50 enamelled-bucket of "chips & gravy".
The one that got away: Tom's Place
One of the brightest openings of 2008 has already gone, as Tom Aikens' Chelsea neighbours protected their house values (ha!) by forcing his ethical new-wave chippy to close. I, for one, hope it succeeds elsewhere. '
Unforgettable dishes of 2008
1. A thrilling, filling Tayyabs-inspired halibut collar curry at Hix Oyster & Chop House.
2. A smooth curve of chicken liver and juniper pâté that looks just like rich chocolate ice-cream at Giaconda Dining Room.
3. Launceston House's silky house-cured salmon, brought to the table in a glass dome filled with oak-scented smoke.
4. Rowley Leigh's indulgent little Parmesan custard with anchovy toast at Le Café Anglais (still £3, too).
5. A Frank Hederman smoked seafood platter at Dublin's charming Winding Stair (salmon, mackerel and fleshy Irish mussels, pickles and soda bread).
Forgettable dishes of 2008
1. A very weird onion soup at Beach Blanket Babylon in Shoreditch that was like a cloyingly, tooth-achingly sweet onion soubise.
2. An utterly bland and sizzle-free rock lobster and fresh peppercorn stir-fry at Manchester's Vermilion.
3. Any dumpling at D.Sum2, but especially an ammoniacal lobster dumpling, a rock-hard yam croquette and a soupless soup dumpling.
4. Daylesford Organic's giggle-inducing oxtail, reformed around chicken mousse and served with an upright Ferris wheel of potato gallette.
5. Buddha Bar's strangely pale rolls of tuna, turbot, salmon and avocado that tasted of nothing in particular, and fell apart when picked up.
Given the current economic climate, there will be no new openings at all. Kidding.
Just opened/opening any minute...
Trishna, London offshoot of the legendary Mumbai restaurant. Flash, Bistrotheque's new guerilla restaurant at the Royal Academy of Arts (until 18 Jan). Corrigan's, Richard's newie in Mayfair. The Japanese/Brazilian restaurant, Sushinho. Bocca di Lupo, new Italian from ex-Moro chef Jacob Kennedy. Cinnamon Kitchen, the City offshoot of the Cinnamon Club. Hat and Tun, the new Hatton Garden gastropub from Tom and Ed Martin. J Sheekey's new Oyster Bar. The David Collins-designed Bob Bob Ricard in Soho.
To open later this year/ early next year...
John Torode's Luxe in Spitalfields Market. Megu, new London offshoot of trendy New York Japanese.
Bjorn Van der Horst's Eastside Inn. Something from the Galvin brothers in Spitalfields Market. The first London branch of Russian steakhouse chain Goodman.
To open in 2012...
Chris Corbin and Jeremy King of The Wolseley and St Alban have reportedly just secured five floors of the 300m "Pinnacle scheme" and plan to open London's highest restaurant in 2012.
Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester The Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, London W1, tel: 020 7629 8866, www.alainducasse-dorchester.com.
Ambassade de L'Ile 117-119 Old Brompton Road, London SW7, tel: 020 7373 7774, www.ambassadedelile.com.
Andaman St James's Hotel, 7-8 Park Place, London SW1, tel: 020 7316 1615, www.stjameshotelandclub.com.
L'Anima 1 Snowden Street, London EC2, tel: 020 7422 7000, www.lanima.co.uk.
Anthony's Restaurant 19 Boar Lane, Leeds, tel: 0113 245 5922, www.anthonysrestaurant.co.uk.
Aaya 66-70 Brewer Street, London W1, tel: 020 7319 3888.
Baozi Inn 25 Newport Court, London WC2, tel: 020 7287 6877.
Beach Blanket Babylon East 19-23 Bethnal Green Road, London E1, tel: 020 7749 3540, www.beachblanket.co.uk.
Benito's Hat 56 Goodge St, London W1, tel: 020 7637 3732, www.benitos-hat.com.
Bob Bob Ricard 1 Upper James Street, London W1, tel: 020 3145 1000, www.bobbobricard.com.
Bocca di Lupo 12 Archer Street, London W1, tel: 020 7734 2223, www.boccadilupo.com.
The Botanist 7 Sloane Square, London SW1, tel: 020 7730 0077, www.thebotanistonsloanesquare.com.
Buddha Bar 8 Victoria Embankment, London WC2, tel: 020 3371 7777, www.buddhabar-london.com.
The Bull & Last 168 Highgate Road, London NW5, tel: 020 7267 3641 www.thebullandlast.co.uk.
Le Café Anglais Whiteley's, 8 Porchester Gardens, London W2, tel: 020 7221 1415, www.lecafeanglais.co.uk.
Cha Cha Moon 15-21 Ganton Street, London W1, tel: 020 7297 9800.
Chilango 142 Fleet Street, London EC4, tel: 020 7353 6761,
www.chilango.co.uk. Cinnamon Kitchen 9 Devonshire Gardens, London EC2, www.cinnamonkitchen.co.uk.
Corrigan's 28 Upper Grosvenor Street, London W1, tel: 020 7499 9943.
Croque Gascon K2015, Westfield Shopping Centre, Ariel Way, London W2, www.croquegascon.com.
Daylesford Organic 44B Pimlico Road, London SW1, tel: 020 7881 8060, www.daylesfordorganic.com.
D.Sum2 14 Paternoster Row, London EC4, tel: 020 7248 2288, www.dsum2.com.
Edmund's 6 Central Square, Brindley Place, Birmingham, tel: 0121 633 4944, www.edmundsbirmingham.com.
500 782 Holloway Road, London N19, tel: 020 7272 3406, www.500restaurant.co.uk.
Flash Royal Academy of Arts, 6 Burlington Gardens, London W1, tel: 020 8880 6111, www.bookflashnow.com.
The Giaconda Dining Room 9 Denmark Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7240 3334, www.giacondadining.com.
Hakuba 111a Great Russell Street, London WC1, tel: 020 7300 3250, www.hakuba.co.uk.
Haozhan 8 Gerrard Street, London W1, tel: 020 7434 3838, www.haozhan.co.uk.
The Hat and Tun 3 Hatton Wall, London EC1, tel: 020 7242 4747, www.thehatandtun.com.
Helene Darroze at the Connaught, Carlos Place, Mayfair, London W1, tel: 020 3147 7200, www.the-connaught.co.uk.
Hix Oyster & Chop House, 36-37 Greenhill Rents, London EC1, tel: 020 7017 1930, www.hixoysterandchophouse.co.uk.
Jamie's Italian (Oxford), 24-26 George Street, Oxford, tel: 01865 838 383, www.jamiesitalian.com.
Jamie's Italian (Bath), 10 Milsom Place, Bath, tel: 01225 510 051, www.jamiesitalian.com.
Kingham Plough, Kingham, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, tel: 01608 658 327, www.thekinghamplough.co.uk.
L'Absinthe, 40 Chalcott Road, London NW1, tel: 020 7483 4848.
Larwood & Voce, Fox Road, Trent Bridge, West Bridgford, Nottingham, tel: 0115 981 9960, www.larwoodandvoce.co.uk.
Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, London W8, tel: 020 7937 6912, www.launcestonplace-restaurant.co.uk.com.
Leong's Legends, 4 Macclesfield Street, London W1, tel: 020 7287 0288.
The Lord Nelson, Chestnut Grove, Burton Joyce, Nottingham, tel: 0115 931 1800, www.lordnelsonpubandkitchen.co.uk.
Market, 43 Parkway, London NW1, tel: 020 7267 9700, www.marketrestaurant.co.uk.
Murano, 20 Queen Street, London W1, tel: 020 7592 1222, www.angelahartnett.com.
Princess Victoria, 217 Uxbridge Road, London W12, tel: 020 8749 5886, www.princessvictoria.co.uk.
Princi Bakery, 135 Wardour Street, London W1,tel: 020 7478 8888, www.princi.it.
Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street, London W1, tel: 020 7437 9585, www.quovadissoho.co.uk.
Rogan & Company, The Square, Cartmel, Cumbria, tel: 01539 535 917, www.roganandcompany.co.uk.
Saf, 152-154 Curtain Road, London EC2, tel: 020 7613 0007, www.safrestaurant.co.uk.
Sake No Hana, 23 St James's Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7925 8988, www.sakenohana.com.
The Seahorse, 5 South Embankment, Dartmouth, Devon, tel: 01803 835 147, www.seahorserestaurant.co.uk.
Soseki, 30 St Mary Axe 1F, London EC3, tel: 020 7621 9211, www.soseki.co.uk.
Tierra Brindisa, 46 Broadwick Street, London W1, tel: 020 7534 1690, www.brindisatapaskitchens.com.
Trishna, 151 Blandford Street, London W1, tel: 020 7353 3633, www.trishnalondon.com.
Tsunami Westend, 93 Charlotte Street, London W1, tel: 020 7637 0050, www.tsunamirestaurant.co.uk.
Vermilion, Hulme Hall Lane, Manchester, tel: 0161 202 0055, www.vermilioncinnabar.com.
Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, London WC2, tel: 020 7240 1883, www.wahaca.co.uk.
The Winding Stair, 40 Lower Ormond Quay, Dublin, tel: 00 353 1 872 7320, www.winding-stair.com.
York & Albany, 127-129 Parkway, London NW1, tel: 020 7388 3344, www.gordonramsay.com