The Big Question: Are London restaurants the best in the world, or overrated and overpriced?

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The Independent Online

Why ask that now?

London has overtaken Tokyo as the most expensive city in the world for dining out. It's dearer than Paris and double the price of New York. The news has led the Michelin-starred chef Anthony Demetre, who owns Arbutus in Soho and Wild Honey in Mayfair, to denounce London as "a huge rip-off" which exploits the culinary snobbery of Londoners who have conned themselves into thinking that expensive equals good.

How good is London food?

Ask talented chefs outside London and you get a mixed verdict. "If it's not the culinary capital it's made a massive leap towards it," says Mark Dodson, who trained at the Waterside Inn in Bray, Berkshire and now runs the Michelin-starred Mason's Arms, Knowstone, Devon, where he cooks in a refined French style using local seasonal produce. "There's a huge diversity you don't get elsewhere."

True, says the doyen of Britain's non-London food critics, Robert Cockroft of the Yorkshire Post. "London has erupted in the last 20 years," he says. "It has some fantastic restaurants with a great array of interesting tastes from around the world and very technically talented chefs." But there is a caveat in the word "technical". Another Michelin-man, Simon Rogan, of L'Enclume at Cartmel in the Lake District, who has been called one of the most innovative chefs in Britain, amplifies: "There is a lot of accomplished cooking, but it's all much the same."

So whose food is better?

Paris, most chefs suggest, remains the real rival, though New York has many fans. "New York's culture is much longer established," says Nick Nairn, who ran Michelin-starred restaurants for a decade before opening his celebrated Scottish cookery school. "Sydney was for a long time the most exciting place in the world to eat. London has mushroomed, but it is still finding its identity."

What London lacks is the integrity about the way food is served in Paris or Lyons suggests Cockroft. "It's about the way the cooking develops from the life of the countryside," he says. "It is not an organic expression of the agriculture of England. It's all copy-cat menus, and doing what's in fashion".

Is London too expensive?

Again, opinion is divided. "Good food is always expensive," says Dodson, "and because living in London is very expensive, so is the food." Rightly so, adds Tom Kerridge the chef-proprietor of that most unusual of beasts a Michelin-starred pub, The Hand and Flowers, of Marlow in Buckinghamshire. "Overpriced? The idea is outrageous," says Kerridge who trained in three top London restaurants under Gary Rhodes and Stephen Bull. "A line-caught sea-bass will cost a chef £6. If he sells it for £22 a portion there's not a huge profit on that when you consider rents, which are among the most expensive in the world, staff wages, china, laundry and other overheads."

But Nick Nairn, who eats more regularly in London, has noticed that prices have been creeping steadily higher. "It's not uncommon for a bill to be £250 for two – and not in two-star Michelin restaurants. That's getting pretty steep."

Why are Londoners prepared to pay so much?

There is a lot of money around. "I was in Scott's the other night," says Nairn. "It was full of men in smart suits and women in little black dresses eating Dover Sole at £30 a portion and drinking champagne. London has such a concentration of wealth. And the city gets a million visitors a night."

It means that, whereas elsewhere in Britain the restaurant trade can be highly seasonal, and show great variance between days of the week, or even between lunch and dinner, the market is steady. "London has a small dip over the summer, otherwise it is solid," he says."Get the formula right for a new restaurant and it can take off within a fortnight."

Can good restaurants outside London compete?

Only by being different. They either have to go for far greater value for money or something special. "We're fully booked every night," says Tom Kerridge at The Hand and Flowers. "We do it by serving cheaper cuts – gurnard or grey mullet rather than turbot. We price a main at £15, a starter around £5 and you can get a pint of beer for £3. You can get out for £23 a head – not bad for a Michelin-starred restaurant. We do it by not having table cloths or a sommelier. We're a posh pub, though we do use Riedel glasses."

Other outside-London restaurants survive by the sheer force of their chef's personality, such as the gag-filled brilliance of Paul Kitching in Juniper, in Altrincham, or the exquisite experimentalism of El Bulli-trained Anthony Flynn in Anthony's in Leeds, or the wild countrified refinements of Simon Rogan at L'Enclume, where the menu includes infusions of bark gathered from local silver birches.

Does location make a difference?

Undoubtedly, insists Robert Cockroft. A lot of cooking in London is excellent but it is rootless. It has the best ingredients from all round the country, and the world, but it lacks a sense of identity. "It is grafted on. It is a veneer." By contrast, in the regions it is possible to get food which expresses what in France gourmands call the gout de terroir. Andrew Pern's Michelin-starred restaurant, the Star Inn at Harome, in Yorkshire uses "local eggs, honey, cheeses, apples from Ampleforth and game from some chap who has appeared at the kitchen door."

He cites other examples: the Yorke Arms at Ramsgill near Patley Bridge, Northcote Manor at Langho near Blackburn, the Devonshire Arms at Bolton Abbey which has a huge kitchen garden. He once nearly knocked a chef over as he was hurrying in his whites across the road from the kitchen to the garden.

Isn't this just food snobbery?

"Some of it is just marketing guff," Cockroft concedes. "But you can tell the difference between a cherry that's been picked from the tree over the road and one that's been air-feighted 4,000 miles from California."

Many chefs agree. "In the provinces there is a symbiotic relationship between a resta urant and its suppliers," says Nick Nairn. Moreover, adds Nigel Haworth, chef at Northcote Manor, "local producers constantly inspire me with the quality of their produce."

All that is reflected in the taste. "Shell fish caught in the Forth estuary and eaten in a local restaurant like St Monan's in East Fife or The Cellar in Anstruther," says Nairn, "taste incomparably better than they would the day after in a restaurant in Mayfair." Thanks to global warming, he says, Scotland is now growing the best strawberries in the world.

"Taste a strawberry picked on a local farm and served without every seeing the inside of a fridge," says Nairn, "and you'll know what I mean."

It is the kind of food experience that even the swankiest London restaurant cannot buy.

Are London restaurants value for money?

Yes...

* Routine bills of £250 for two are too expensive in most people's book

* The cooking is technically accomplished but it lacks the real character of regional food

* How recently have you eaten in Paris?

No...

* The range, quality and diversity of cooking styles is greater than in any other city

* London now has some chefs of truly extraordinary talent

* Considering the high rents, wages, and laundry charges in the capital, it's absurd to expect good food on the cheap

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