On the day that an academic study was published which suggested that fine dining in Britain is being gradually democratised, I managed to get a table - no mean feat, I can tell you - at London's hottest new restaurant. It is on the site of an old fire station in Marylebone in central London, and it's quite a scene. I can't have been the only diner who had a nagging concern about firefighting potential in the area (it's all well and good locals having access to mini crab doughnuts, but what if their chip pan catches fire?), but, still, the most striking thing was the concentration of A-list celebrities who have turned this restaurant into a venue so hot that you could worry it might spontaneously combust. And then where would we be?
On the night I was there, it was like walking into living version of the cover of Sgt. Pepper, or visiting Stellar Street. Look, there's Gary Lineker. Oh, and Noel Gallagher's here. And Damien Hirst, Stella McCartney, Bono, together with the rest of U2. Not forgetting Rita Ora, Harry Styles and Brian Eno. The opening of a new restaurant with star credentials has now overtaken theatre productions, films and rock concerts as the must-have ticket, but what was interesting was that the occasional pop of a flash bulb was not to take a snatched shot of Gary or Noel, but was in fact a picture, no doubt to be shared later, of a plate of char-grilled octopus with aubergine, or of slow-cooked cod with leek hearts. Move over Rita, it's the dish that's dishy.
Our relatively recent obsession with food, and eating out in particular, appears to travel across classes and social groups. According to Christel Lane, Professor Emeritus of economic sociology at Cambridge University, “the snobbery of fine dining is gradually being eroded.”
Her book, The Cultivation of Taste, is the first sociological study of fine dining and, through her exhaustive research talking to some of Britain's top chefs and visiting our best restaurants (I know, tough job etc...), she has come to the conclusion that many of the old certainties about Michelin-starred establishments just aren't true any longer. “Michelin chefs are not posh and the culture of their restaurants is no longer elitist,” says Prof Lane. For many people, eating out is “a total cultural experience, like going to a play,” she says.
The Come Dine generation, knowledgeable about food and willing to spend hard-earned cash on eating out, have effected huge change in Britain's culinary landscape. We have no traditions of fine cuisine, but we have, among us, 21 Michelin stars (less than half the number of Germany, another country with no gastronomic heritage to speak of, but nevertheless...), our chefs are rock stars and our rock stars, on the evidence of the other night, are keen foodies.
Whether Prof Lane is correct about the democratisation of fine dining is, however, arguable. It suits chefs and proprietors to sprinkle some elitism on their offerings, and I think a huge number of people still feel intimidated in posh restaurants. This is a cultural experience - like opera - that is beyond the reach of many. And the system is set up to make sure it stays like that.