UK Restaurants: Who's eating who?

There has been an explosion of new top-end restaurants in London, and the men behind some of the capital's biggest successes are launching another venture. But for many, it's not the food that counts but who's eating it
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The Independent Online

Behind well-guarded doors in the West End of London, men are polishing their knives. And their forks, spoons and snail tongs. Today they will join battle in the world of the elite eaterie, where brutal competition ratcheted up last week with the opening of St Alban, the latest place to eat and be seen.

It is the most recent offering from Jeremy King and Chris Corbin, widely acknowledged to be the best operators in the UK's highly competitive restaurant industry. King and Corbin have to their credit the dramatic successes of Le Caprice, The Ivy and J Sheekey, all of which they sold in a deal worth a reported £12m in 1998.

Since then, the pair have scored another hit with The Wolseley, a grand, all-day European-style café next to the Ritz on Piccadilly. Their success is remarkable given the number and quality of top-flight restaurants.

St Alban comes hot on the heels of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon which opened in September, and the launch of Tom Aikens' new venture, Tom's Kitchen, last month. On Tuesday, Scott's of Mayfair will open its doors once more, after two years of rebuilding. The new owner is Caprice Holdings - Corbin and King's original company, which still owns and runs The Ivy, J Sheekey and Le Caprice.

"All these openings are not normal at all," said Richard Harden of Harden's London Restaurants. "You have to go back at least a decade to find so many good, well-anticipated, high-profile openings all happening at the top end and at the same time."

There are now some 20,000 restaurants in London, with Harden's tracking between 130 and 140 new openings a year - nearly twice as many as at the turn of the decade. At the top end of the scale, 36 restaurants in the capital now boast Michelin stars, more than any other city outside Paris. It all makes for an incredibly competitive market. But if anyone is guaranteed to succeed, Mr Harden believes, it is King and Corbin.

"The stakes are high, but King and Corbin are near-deities on the London restaurant scene," Mr Harden said. "Nobody else has their track record: they haven't failed once.

"Nobody has a bad word to say about them: they're traditional gentlemen in the way that other people in the trade, sadly, are not. Everybody wants to get in with King and Corbin because they know that everyone who is anyone will be eating at their restaurants."

Many in the industry argue that there is room for everybody at the table, with foodie spending at an all-time high. The London restaurant scene now generates an estimated £1.6bn a year, with a recent Zagat survey finding that the average cost of eating out in the capital has risen almost 50 per cent over the past decade. A typical meal consisting of three courses and one glass of wine now costs £38 per head in London - nearly twice as much as in New York or Los Angeles and second only to Tokyo in the list of most expensive cities in which to dine.

That average includes cut-price eateries and takeaways. When it comes to London's 20 most expensive restaurants, the figure shoots up to an average of £82.86 per head.

The magic number for mark-up on food and drink is 300 per cent - drop below that and the restaurant is unlikely to be profitable. And most restaurants will struggle to make money unless they are 80-90 per cent full on average each night.

To the disgust of many leading chefs, restaurateurs and critics, for many dining out is still more about the seating than the eating. The success of the Cipriani in Mayfair - packed with well-heeled air kissers, who pay over the odds for what is widely agreed to be pretty standard Italian staples - proves there's more to success than just what's on the plate and what's being charged for it.

It's also interesting to note that despite Gordon Ramsay's Michelin-starred might that, outside of his gastronomic flagship in Hospital Road, almost every time he's tried to expand his London empire into standalone restaurants, outside hotels, he has failed. He had to close Fleur in St James in 2004 and Pengelley's in Knightsbridge at the start of this year.

Much to the disappointment of gourmets, concept and fashion seem to drive the capital's new restaurant openings. Diners are showered regularly with fresh stunts: counter dining, tasting menus and chef's tables. "With many of these places, I don't think the quality of the food is the driving factor; it's all about the social scene," says leading restaurateur Oliver Peyton, the man behind the successful Inn the Park at St James's Park. "For many people it's more about being on the waiting list or 'ooh, I'm there'. It's all very tribal."

But despite his misgivings about customer motivation in general, Peyton too was full of praise for the enigmatic King and Corbin.

"The secret of their success is that they pound the floor and meet their guests; they know everyone," he said. "Hospitality is the cornerstone of their business - and their success. They have set the standard for service in London."

King and Corbin, whose policy is never to speak to the press, have been working together for 25 years. They're doing something different with St Alban. Modern, where their previous ventures largely played on tradition, it is very much a new direction for the partnership. When contacted by this newspaper, King maintained his trademark polite silence, saying: "We've always said we aim to open restaurants which we'd like to go to ourselves."

Charles Campion, the author of the London Restaurant Guide, said: "King and Corbin are thoughtful restaurateurs. They haven't dropped the ball yet."

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

The French restaurant was opened in the West End of London in September. The chef is Frédéric Simonin, and celebrity patrons include Gordon Ramsay.

The Wolseley

The Mitteleuropean restaurant opened in Piccadilly in November 2003. The chef is Julian O'Neill, and the celebrity patrons include Michael Winner (right) and Ewan McGregor.

J Sheekey

The Covent Garden seafood restaurant has been going since 1896. Its chef is Martin Dickinson, and celebrity patrons include Sienna Miller (right) and Kate Moss.

The Ivy

Legendary Covent Garden haunt of celebrities and media luminaries. Alan Bird is the chef, and celebrity regulars include Madonna (right), Elton John and Jeremy Paxman.

Le Caprice

The modern European restaurant opened in SW1 in 1981. Kevin Gratton is the chef, and among the celebrity patrons are Sharon Stone and Elizabeth Hurley (right).

Hakkasan

The Chinese restaurant tucked away in Hanway Place has been going since 2001. Chef Tong Chee Hwee's celebrity patrons include Mick Jagger (right), Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.

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