Location is, notoriously, the single most important factor in determining the success of a restaurant. The two new arrivals I visited this week are separated by a couple of miles. But one of them has sprung up in a dining hotspot, Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia, where new chains jostle with famous old-timers. The other has beamed down by Camden Market, on a busy strip where good restaurants are as rare as unpierced tourists.
They couldn't be more different, these two, though both come with excellent pedigrees. Barnyard (pictured above), on Charlotte Street, is almost wilfully eccentric. The décor, like a student squat redecorated for a production of Oklahoma!, combines industrial discomfort with kooky rustic flourishes. You might stumble across it on a back-street of Montreal or Melbourne and think, cute. Here, in oh-so-tasteful Fitzrovia, the only response is "What WERE they thinking?".
If ever a new opening didn't have to try too hard, it's this one. Barnyard is the latest from Ollie Dabbous, whose nearby restaurant is one of the hottest in town. But don't come to Barnyard expecting the same precision-tooled experimentation. Here, the theme is 'home-cooking, done well'. Chef Joseph Woodland, ex of Launceston Place, offers small plates, mostly in the £5-£8 bracket, and the idea is that you're in and out for a light meal within an hour. Dabbous is booked up the wazoo months in advance; at Barnyard, you can't book at all.
I walked straight in on both my visits, at slightly off-peak times, and while it's a peculiar place, it's appealing, if you're in the right mood (code for 'under 30'). The tiny mezzanine marked off by paling fencing is more comfortable than the crushed ground-floor bar area. The menu, subdivided under 'pig', 'cow', 'chicken', 'egg' and 'vegetables', embraces both trad comfort dishes – sausage roll, mince and dumpling– and on-trend Americana – cornbread, chicken wings, barbecued rib. Quite how to construct a meal out of these disparate dishes isn't clear; you find yourself literally wondering what does come first, the chicken or the egg.
They arrive together, it turns out, on enamelled tin plates; no frills here. And they're both very good, the 'chicken in a bun' a whole boned leg, brined and barbecued, served in a brioche slathered with tarragon mayonnaise, the just-set eggs broken over a hotpot of meaty field mushrooms slow-cooked in smoked butter, swoony with garlic and parsley.
Other dishes confirm that Barnyard does familiar things very well, and unfamiliar things rather brilliantly. A plain dish of mince, holding a single suet dumpling, comes with nothing but a swoony Proustian rush. Similarly evocative is the pert piccalilli which squires a perfect, glazed sausage roll. But everything is better than you'd expect at these prices, from the green salad, a marvel of soft leaves galvanised by the aniseed bite of lovage, to the rare Chilean wagyu beef which comes piled on to toast with warm horseradish buttermilk.
The drinks menu is quirky, too. Beers and ciders outnumber wines, and there's an array of fantastical cocktails. One thing is clear; no focus groups have been harmed in the development of this restaurant. Barnyard feels like a one-off.
Camden's Q-Grill is very much the opposite. A proto-chain, masterminded by Des McDonald, ex-Caprice Group supremo, it's a Frankenstein's monster of a restaurant, bolted together from other people's ideas. Like Barnyard, its rough-planked, and woodier than Ron Jeremy, but the look is basic borrowed Brooklyn on an epic scale, tricked-out with so much quirky industrial ephemera it's like sitting in an All Saints shop window.
The open kitchen turns out grills, barbecued meats and dirty diner treats, at West End prices. There's barely any veg in sight; this is food for people for whom 5-2 is a football score, not a diet. NY strip steak (£25) is decently cooked, though a side order of seasoned fries has a peculiar, sweet aftertaste. Southern fried chicken comes with a clamorous wild garlic sauce, making memories of dinner at Q-Grill live on for the wrong reasons.
Mostly, though, the food is fine, and the top-notch service betrays Q-Grill's fine lineage. It's big and noisy, booming with a soundtrack of vintage ska and R&B, and the tourists will love it. Like McDonald's first venture, The Fish and Chip Shop, it will roll out beautifully. But it left us feeling that we'd eaten in a restaurant brand, rather than a restaurant.
That's not to say Q-Grill feels cynical. Different as it is from Barnyard, it is animated by the same sense of brio and confidence, and the desire to do small things well. Both restaurants have their roots in – and have nabbed chefs from – the smarter end of the market. And both, in different ways, reinforce the sense that these days all the fun is happening at the casual end, wherever the location.
Barnyard, 18 Charlotte Street, London W1 (020-7580 3842). Around £25 a head, including drinks and service
Q-grill Camden, 29-33 Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 (020-7267 2678). Around £40 a head, including drinks and service