Discerning diners force record restaurant closures

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Indy Lifestyle Online

For the purveyors of foie gras and crayfish, times have never been so tough. Record numbers of restaurants in London, the would-be gastronomic capital of Europe, are shutting their doors after being shunned by a discerning new breed of British diner.

A combination of tough customers and even tougher economic conditions has seen the highest number of restaurants in the capital close down in the past 12 months.

Figures compiled by a leading dining guide show that 122 establishments ceased serving - an 85 per cent increase on the record set last year, when 66 restaurants closed. But the closures were balanced by a record increase in the number of businesses opening their doors with 135 new restaurants starting up - an increase of 10 per cent on 2002.

Peter Harden, co-editor of Harden's Guides, which produced the figures, said: "It has been a tremendously tough year for restaurateurs - businesses that had been content to go with the flow have been found out and forced to close by the economic reality.

"At the same time, the dynamic nature of eating out in London is shown by the number of people opening up. There is a passion for food - some succeed and others fail."

The failures ranged from operations run by some of the most high-profile chefs, such as Nico Ladenis and John Burton Race, to family-run suburban eateries and at least two commercially backed chains.

Experts insisted the high failure rate showed the continued development of London's restaurant culture over the past decade, when it has been propelled from the soup kitchen of world cuisine to its top table. One recent survey by an American restaurant ratings company placed London second only to Paris in the quality of its cuisine and ahead of its competitors in the breadth of choice of ethnic cuisine. Londoners are among the world's more prolific restaurant goers, dining out on average 2.4 times a week, compared with the Parisian average of 2.9. But diners in London also pay the most - £32 per person, compared with £30 in Paris and £24 in New York.

The publishers of the latest statistics in the 13th edition of Harden's London Restaurants said that the increase in competition and a fragile economy meant those not up to scratch were being found out sooner.

Mr Harden said: "When the economy slows down you often find that proprietors who had tried certain concepts decide they can no longer go on and pull the plug. But you now have to couple this with a British clientele who know what they are looking for and are no longer prepared to put up with poor service and indifferent food. The punishment is altogether more swift for those who cannot survive the competition."

Among the Michelin- starred establishments to shut were La Tante Claire in Knightsbridge, where the chef, Pierre Koffman, was famed for his pig's trotters, and John Burton Race at the Landmark. The two-starred chef from Berkshire had moved his business to the Marylebone hotel only to decamp to France to pursue a new venture. The television chef Gary Rhodes closed two restaurants after a joint venture with the catering giant Sodexho ended by "mutual agreement". The attrition was felt outside central London, with restaurants from a highly rated couscous house in Golders Green, north-west London, to the trendy Café Spice Namaste in Barnes, west London, closing their doors.

There were also casualties among corporate ventures, including the Fish! chain, run by the entrepreneur Tony Allan, which closed an outlet in the Docklands, and Shoeless Joe's, an upmarket sports bar and restaurant chain that briefly became part of the tabloid celebrity circuit before closing ignominiously in May.

Observers stressed that the troubles were as much driven by economic conditions as a new generation of diners. Karen Hanton, managing director of Top Table, an internet-based booking service, said: "We shouldn't underestimate the influence of factors like people being worried about eating in a West End restaurant because of all the warnings about suicide bombers and terrorism.

"You have to add to that the effects of job losses in the City, where expense accounts have a large influence on restaurant profits."

London's winners...

Locanda Locatelli

The new addition to the list of ubiquitous super-chef restaurants with television series. Run by Giorgio Locatelli in Marylebone, it has won multiple awards and is ninth in the Harden's list of most mentioned establishments.

Fifteen

The fusion of social engineering and publicity that won Jamie Oliver widespread plaudits after he turned a group of jobless youngsters into a cuisine phenomenon in front of millions of rapt television viewers. Booked out months ahead.

Balham Kitchen

One of a new breed of trendy hangouts in the suburbs. The latest venture of Nick Jones, proprietor of Soho House and Café Boheme, mixes a hip bar with a chic menu in one of the deepest corners of south London.

... And losers

Teatro

A doomed venture in a converted car park in Soho owned by the actress Leslie Ash and the former Leeds United footballer Lee Chapman. It never really succeeded in dragging the paparazzi's prey away from the Ivy.

Simply Nico

One of the four outlets in the chain that borrowed the name of the French master-chef Nico Ladenis and employed him as a consultant chef before they parted company two years ago. The London Bridge branch closed this year.

City Rhodes

A joint venture by the celebrity chef and Sodexho, the catering giant that runs thousands of "outsourced" work canteens. The City restaurant, and another Rhodes one in the West End, closed in January after accounting problems at Sodexho.

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