Up all night: Today's 24-hour restaurants are no longer just pit-stops for party people
A new breed offers fine dining at any time of day, reports Samuel Muston
Samuel Muston is deputy editor & food editor of The Independent Magazine. He writes a weekly food column – On the Menu – which appears in The Independent on Friday and i on Monday. And also travel and general features. Follow him on Instagram at @smuston
Thursday 15 November 2012
Twenty-four hour restaurants come in two varieties. There are those places of wanton sleeplessness the movies show. The low-lit dens rushing and breaking on waves of booze, as show-offs with loosened ties spend their gambling wins on caviar and steak tartare and the dining room reverberates to the tinkle of champagne bottles on flutes.
And then there are the places we have tended to have here, in Britain. Places that most resemble the diner in David Lynch's Twin Peaks, the one with the owner's husband who has a tendency to get punchy and a woman who carries around a log. Roadside "caffs" full of insomniacs, drifters, grafters and the lonely. Where people stare down at coffee like it was an ancient rune they were on the brink of cracking and eat for want of anything better to do. Or else places in cities aimed at people who are pissed and wanting a bit of a sit down. Like the inumerable fast food chains that are now as insomniac as the clubbers they serve. At any rate, not what you would call culinary destinations.
There is a surprise, then, to be had at Duck and Waffle, the new 24-hour restaurant on London's Bishopsgate. Here they won't let you in if you are drunk, casino winnings or no casino winnings, and you probably would term it a destination, sitting as it does like a crystal bird's nest on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower and only accessible by a cube of glass and steel that whizzes you up the side like something out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
The chef, too, is "destination". Daniel Doherty is almost irritatingly prodigious. Coming up through the ranks of the Roux restaurants having won the Academy of Culinary Arts scholarship at 16, he became a senior sous chef at 21 and then went to run the kitchens at private bank Coutts ("the royals were there quite a lot, so we did silver service – the budgets were quite liberal before the credit crunch"). After which he opened the Old Brewery in Greenwich at 25, of which this paper's restaurant reviewer said: "I can't think of many better options than dinner at the Old Brewery." He's a "name" – and one on the up. He's also 28.
The combination of the 40th-floor location and Doherty has ensured that when Duck and Waffle went 24hr two months after opening, it was noted in the foodie press. But his restaurant is not alone. After closing for short time, Vingt Quatre, the restaurant in London's Fulham Road, which has had a 24-hour drinking licence since 1994, and was once known as "the last chance saloon for amorous Sloanes", has re-opened with a shiny new interior and foreshortened name – VQ.
Tinseltown in London's Farringdon now only closes for an hour and a half at weekends, though they have been known to let you linger if you behave. Balans in Soho does the same. And on an altogether more massive scale, McDonald's confirms that 435 of its premises around the UK never turn off the lights in the golden arches, with plans for a further 65 to open 24 hours for at least one day a week in future.
But how do you get staff to work through the night – and be of sufficient quality to make sure your restaurant's star doesn't fall during the night hours? At Duck and Waffle it has, apparently, been quite easy: they got the dads in. "Our four night-chefs are young fathers. We asked everyone who applied: 'Why do you want to be a night chef?' because I figured in a city of 8 million you'd get talented chefs who wanted to work nights so they could see their kids – they tend to be more trustworthy, too, and that is important when I can't be here all the time." says Doherty.
Simon Prideaux of VQ similarly taps the capital's pool of young fathers when he is trying to find chefs. Though, his waiting staff tend to be young post-university gap year types: "It's a carnival atmosphere, so it attracts people in their early twenties – they get good tips".
The atmosphere in Duck and Waffle at 12.30am on a Friday is certainly warmer and louder than your average restaurant at 10pm. A good sign, as another nominal problem is – who the hell are you going to feed during the night?
The menu traverses the light (scallops with black truffle on Himalayan sea salt) to the truly gluttonous (ox cheek doughnuts, the eponymous duck leg on a waffle and a foie gras "all-day breakfast").
What of late-night drinkers, though? Do they pose a problem to the peace of the Instagram-toting foodie or the knee-trembling couple? Duck and Waffle, like VQ, and many of the 24-hour McDonald's, employs bouncers. "Sometimes we get a crossover at about seven-ish between clubbers and people breakfasting. Rather than asking people to go, though, we simply change the atmosphere – the lights go up and the music become more 'daytime'. It tends to do the trick," say Prideaux. Sitting at the top of Duck and Waffle at midnight it strikes me there must be problems of logistics? Doherty explains that their cleaners work around the diners at slow times (mid-morning and late night) and at 3.30am a full team comes to do the kitchen: "we work in one half of the kitchen and they clean the other – it is a matter of being disciplined: and having a little OCD".
It may seem risky to become a 24-hour restaurant at the tail end of a recession. But actually, some sound economics lies behind it. "In the next decade we will likely see more places that are open for breakfast or into the night – it is a way of getting the most from the money you spend on overheads," says Peter Backman MD of Horizons FS, the food and drink analysts. After all, if you are renting floor space in a city as expensive as London – why not maximise the hours you are able to capitalise on it?
As any of the many 24-hour restaurateurs in New York, Paris or Hong Kong will tell you, staff costs tend to be small beer when set against the ruinous cost of most city rents.
So will these places of insomniac culinary service survive? Flourish even, as we become more and more sleepless ourselves? Certainly there is a draw to places like Duck and Waffle, a romanticism to them – a feeling that you are being a bit naughty eating your waffle at gone two in the morning.
It is the child's fantasy of a midnight feast, but for adults – and with chefs and waitresses and wine and no bed covers to get dirty.
For me – for that reason alone – Duck and Waffle and the rest deserve to fly.
Late night dining around the UK
Manchester's curry mile has an ever-lengthening list of late-night curry houses serving residents, revellers and workers from the nearby hospital. Lal Qila Restaurant in Rusholme is one of the most famous.
Market Diner in Kemp Town in Brighton specialises in the type of soak-up-the-booze food craved by some when the witching hour has passed.
In Glasgow, revellers at the Bar Bloc+ can listen to a band and then chow down on a pizza until gone 3am.
At Alma da Cuba in Liverpool city centre punters can enjoy their South American fusion food until the early hours.
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