Food Chains: Choice is off the menu

Chic London restaurants are booming. But most of them are run by a handful of businessmen who put concept before good food
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Over the past three years, London has seen a restaurant explosion, with eating out replacing sex as a leisure activity among fashionable people. From wild mushroom risotto to couscous, pigs trotter to rocket salad, every food fad is catered for. From Clerkenwell to Soho, and Chelsea to Notting Hill, the job of restaurant critic has never been easier with new premises opening nearly every week.

Huge dining rooms like Quaglino's and Bank (and soon-to-open Smiths in EC1) serve hundreds nightly. On the surface, it seems that the choice is endless, but the reality is different.

It is now more likely that you are eating a dish dreamed up in a corporate kitchen after intense market research. The result of all this focus group activity seems to be that the architecture - the mysterious ambience - is more important than the food. And profits are more important than anything else.

Rich men, and they generally are men, with grown-up careers in advertising and merchant banking, are giving up their day jobs in favour of feeding the capital's self-styled discerning diners. On the face of it, they are spoilt for choice with more than 6,000 restaurants. The reality is that 20 per cent of these restaurants are estimated to be owned, not by traditional owner-chefs, but by men in suits. One of the biggest factors behind the change has been the growing tendency to convert former banks into bars and restaurants. These have tended to be in expensive prime sites that can be afforded only by companies with deep pockets.

Most of the so-called hip new restaurants offer depressingly similar menus. The staple dishes of Caesar salad, Moroccan lamb and seared tuna with wilted spinach are becoming all too familiar - the 1990s equivalent of prawn cocktail, steak Diane and Black Forest gateau. And this new wave of eating out is curiously xenophobic. In their quest to define modern British cooking, this new breed of restaurateur has generally washed its hands of Indian, Middle Eastern and other ethnic cuisines in search of menus with greater profit margins.

It all began with the "Conranisation" of London ten years ago, when designer Terence Conran abandoned soft furnishings for the restaurant business. Among those who followed are Kevin Finch. He opened Montana, an upmarket restaurant with an American theme, five years ago. He now has six outposts with equally Wild West names such as Dakota and Idaho. Before he discovered the joys of tamales and fried green tomatoes, Finch ran a group of nursing homes. Now he has teamed up with Pharmacy, showcase for Damien Hirst, and formed a new company which has ambitious plans. Co-owner and PR man Matthew Freud says: "This is our dream team. Pharmacy has to be very careful in expanding. By teaming up with Montana, we are taking the pressure to expand off ourselves."

It is hardly surprising that Pharmacy is feeling the pressure. While running a restaurant has looked like a smart route to enter a glamorous milieu and make a healthy profit, there are many ambushes along the way. These are chic restaurants with a chic crowd that can be very fickle and move on elsewhere, quickly turning the in-place into an out-place that resembles a desert more than a place for dessert.

One of the first to join the feeding frenzy was Marco Pierre White, launching his MPW bistros, the revamped Criterion Brasserie and Quo Vadis - originally "curated" by Damien Hirst. White's business interests are complicated. He owns some outright with money from his mysterious backer, James Lahoud. Others he launched with funding from Forte, which has since been taken over by Granada of motorway food fame. Oliver Peyton, charismatic and stylish owner of the Atlantic Bar and Grill, is also jockeying for position on the food chain, with Coast and Mash in London and Mash & Air in Manchester. He has new restaurants in the pipeline.

If they have anything in common, these new proprietors invest as much on architecture and design as they do on the food. Things have really started to heat up with the entrance of Chris Bodker, a former merchant banker who launched his first restaurant, The Avenue in St James's Street, three years ago by offering a "share issue" to 70 investors.

"I wasn't offering anything that different," he says. "It's not like I wanted to change the way people ate, like Yo! Sushi or Wagamama have done. But I was lucky, because it was one of the first new modern British places. I suspect they backed me rather than the idea."

The Avenue's menu offers classic British staples such as calves' liver and onion marmalade, with a touch of French luxury - Sauternes and foie gras. In common with many of Bodker's imitators, the hi-tech design, all sweeping glass curves and an awesome sense of space, appears to be just as important as the food.

Bodker has now opened a sister restaurant, Circus, and his company, Moving Image Restaurants, recently snapped up the group which owns Kensington Place, Launceston Place and The Brackenbury in Hammersmith. It would probably surprise many of The Brackenbury's well-heeled clientele that their cosy local was owned by a merchant banker. As well as being ambitious, Bodker is well connected. He plans to open a chain of restaurants with his friend Charles Saatchi based on the recent Sensation exhibition. "The restaurant business is finally growing up," he says. "Even so, among the new groups, there's no real depth of management talent. It's usually down to one man."

Simon Binder, who owns the relatively new Cafe Med chain, despairs when he hears all this talk of economics and management structures. "The trouble with these people is that they've got no experience of the restaurant business. I started out as a bartender, so I really have a feel for how things work." Binder, who funded Cafe Med from the sale of his shares in the Mamma Amalfi chain after it was bought by Whitbread, is cautious about over-expansion. "Our customers don't like the idea of eating in a big chain," he says. "What we're after is simplicity. Good fresh ingredients of the best quality, friendly staff and a total ban on freezers and microwaves."

The upwardly mobile foodies these restaurants want to attract may baulk at the notion of corporate ownership. Perhaps this is why so many of the new owners maintain a studiously low profile. Belgo, the moules-frites triumvirate, is a case in point. It is famous across London for its waiters in sackcloth habits serving up cheap Belgian beer. What few people realise is that this earthy image masks a rapidly expanding conglomerate, Belgo Group, which owns The Ivy and Le Caprice. Belgo chairman Luke Johnson used to run Pizza Express. Belgo also recently bought The Collection, Daphne's and Pasha from Moguns Tholstrup, a man more famous for his girlfriends than attracting positive reviews from food critics.

Chez Gerard is another case in point. It looks like an authentic chain of French steak and chips outlets. But behind the Gallic charm is a former advertising man, Laurence Isaacson, whose empire, Groupe Chez Gerard, owns 22 restaurants including Bertorelli's, Scotts and Brasserie St Quentin. "The days of the owner-chef are long gone," says Isaacson. "Now we're seeing people coming in from banking, management, all kinds of disciplines, and so the business is becoming more professional, and ultimately more customer-led."

At the affordable end of the market, business is also booming. There are numerous soup, coffee and sandwich chains, not to mention the spate of Pizza Express imitators such as ASK. One indication of the out-of-control buying spree currently is shown by Aroma, a tiny coffee chain in the West End, which has been snapped up by McDonald's.

The boom shows no sign of slowing down. Inevitably, some of the London effect is beginning to ripple out to other cities. Bank Group, which owns Bank and Fish, is shortly to take a version of its One Lawn Terrace to Birmingham. The group is also rumoured to be opening in Clerkenwell alongside a new Conran. And modern British menus with a twist are becoming commonplace. McDonald's isn't yet offering Lamb McShank with couscous, but the day cannot be far off.

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