It was quite a feat given that the restaurant does not open until 16 September. Within four hours of the reservation line for Gordon Ramsay and David Beckham’s new south London restaurant going live, staff at Union Street Café in Southwark had taken 2,500 bookings – and neither love nor money will get you a table on any Friday or Saturday until November.
The pull of the Beckham name goes some way to accounting for the scramble for tables, of course, but industry insiders say that by the end of September the phenomenon is likely to be repeated, as the capital sees an “unprecedented” boom in restaurant openings.
While restaurateurs elsewhere struggle to fill dining rooms, 20 new establishments are set to open in the capital in the next four weeks alone. There are big name openings by former Ramsay protégé, Jason Atherton, who will be heading up the kitchen at Berners Tavern in the Edition Hotel in Soho, and Angela Hartnett, who is launching Merchant’s Tavern in Shoreditch. Next month will also see the rela unch of Boulestin in Mayfair, Koya noodle bar in Soho, Marianne Lumb’s eponymous restaurant in Notting Hill, and serial restaurateur Richard Caring’s latest, Grillshack, also in Soho.
According to Adam Hyman, the publisher of restaurant-industry newsletter The CODE Bulletin, the number of openings is without precedent in recent years. “There are usually quite a few launches in September, as restaurateurs traditionally hold off until people return from their holidays and London Fashion week begins – but this year it’s a step beyond. We’re not just talking chain openings either – you are seeing a growth in both fine dining and casual restaurants, too.”
Two demographics in particular are driving the resurgence, according to Hyman. “First you have the increasingly important 25 to 34-year-olds, who consider eating out a replacement hobby, and spend a large proportion of their disposable income on eating in informal places in Soho and east London. Then you have wealthy businessmen from Europe, Russia and Japan who are driving the high-end boom in places like St James’s.”
Although a boon for London’s dining classes, the level of growth underlines the capitals disconnection from the rest of UK’s service economy. Neil Gerrard, restaurants editor at Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine, points out that although there are signs of growth in Manchester and other major cities, “London is the real focus. The economy in the capital has remained buoyant throughout the recession and consumer confidence with it – that is only increasing, too. London is now the great testing ground for new eating concepts.”
Where then, is the money coming from to pay for all these launches? According to Kurt Zdesar, who founded the Ping Pong group and is opening Japanese restaurant Chotto Matte in Soho in two weeks, central London is now a very attractive prospect for overseas investors. “The UK might be suffering but London has never looked so attractive for those with moveable capital. Investors from the Middle East and Russia see it as a safe haven with lots of high-spending consumers who can sustain these restaurants,” he said.
Some restaurateurs, however, complain that the growth is unsustainable. Not because the consumers aren’t prepared to pay, but rather there aren’t enough staff to go around. Dan Doherty, head chef at Duck and Waffle in London’s Bishopsgate, said: “There are certainly not enough people, that is true. But you have to ask why that is when there are so many people unemployed. To my mind the problem is that people don’t see it as a viable career. There is too much short termism on the part of some staff and a few restaurateurs”
Jason Atherton echoes Doherty’s sentiment. “We have an industry that gets little help from the government in general. I believe that the food and beverage industry bring in the third largest income to the UK, yet it is still deemed a bad career choice for many and kids are not encouraged to enter our amazing industry. You can travel, you can be creative, and also be very entrepreneurial, so for me it’s one of the best industries to be part off. Kids are put off by long hours and hard work, but our country was built on hard work.”
What to do then? For some the solution lies in government-backed hospitality qualifications – unlike much of Europe, Britain has no sommelier or bartending certificates – but others are taking matters into their own hands.
Fred Sirieix, the general manager of Michelin-starred Galvin at Windows, has started National Waiters Day, to try to draw people to the profession. “What we need is a big shout to all the UK people: ‘Come and join the hospitality industry’,” he said. “It’s the land of opportunity.”
Spoilt for choice: New restaurant openings
Merchant’s Tavern (Shoreditch)
A venture by Angela Harnett, the Michellin-starred chef, with modern European cuisine. The head chef is Neil Borthwick, former sous chef at The Square, another Michellin-starred London restaurant.
Berner’s Tavern at the London Edition hotel (Soho)
Jason Atherton has a Michellin star for the Pollen Street Social and has recently opened the Little Social and the Social Eating House. Expect seasonal and rustic dishes to dominate. Previously he helped Gordon Ramsay set up Maze.
Boulestin (St James’s Street)
Joel Kissin, a former director of Conran Restaurants, is opening the bistro that is intended to pay homage to chef Marcel Boulestin, who brought classic French cooking to London in the 1920s.
All-day counter service grill with modern add-ons, including a smartphone app to join the entry queue. It’s a venture by restaurant tycoon Richard Caring of Caprice Holdings which includes The Ivy and J Sheekey.
Marianne (Notting Hill)
Opened by Marianne Lumb, a Masterchef: The Professionals runner-up with experience in several Michellin-starred restaurants. It will be London’s smallest fine-dining restaurant with just five tables and 14 covers.
Modern Indian cuisine with a British twist. Opened by Karam Sethi, the founder and chef patron of Michelin-starred Trishna London.
Chotto Matte (Soho) Japanese/Peruvian “Nikkei” fusion
Obika (Fitzrovia) Italian
Bo Lang (Chelsea) Dim sum
Ruski’s Tavern (Kensington) Vodka and caviar
Strip Bar and Steak (City) Meat grill
Ace Hotel (Shoreditch) Eclectic