Donald Twain: Putting the Con in Concept
Have you been here before? OK, can I explain the concept for you?’ How I haven’t suddenly and irreversibly turned into Heath Ledger’s Joker after hearing those words remains inexplicable. It is the tip of a deeply cynical iceberg – one of the principal problems with eating out in London. Give yourself a moment to take it in, to think about how utterly perverse the notion is.
Explain what concept? How to eat? Does this 2:2-in-art-history clever hostess actually want to demo the use of a knife and fork? It must surely be that. Because in a restaurant that is what you do. You arrive, you sit and you eat. Right? NO! WRONG! Not in London. Not anymore.
Fashion and food are now so atrociously symbiotic that an urbane Londoner’s choice of restaurant is as important as the clothes she wears and the Mini Cooper she drives. Branding, PR and marketing have become the indispensable tools of launching what should be simply be a room with potentially good food in it. Restaurants are carefully thought-out theme parks, less about eating and more about being prodded through a gaudy immersive experience. Our senses are bombarded until we think that what we see is real.
It begins before you’re even in the building. Many of London’s white-hot new openings insist that bookings are not an option, that the only way to get into their hallowed spaces is by waiting in line, outdoors. Hip-as-shit Meat Liquor (which, granted, has been around a while) will go as far as refusing you a seat unless your whole party is present at the same time.
Walk through Soho on any given end-of-week evening and you will see lines of fashion-hungry foodies queuing up. You never see food-hungry fashionistas, of course. As a society, we have worked hard, over centuries, to ensure that no one need queue for their bread. Now, though, it has become de rigueur to look like you’re the victim of a communist regime.
The natural progression of this will be for restaurants to hand out ration books. ‘Sorry buddy, I can’t see a token for those chips.’ Any day now, mark my words. Then, when you finally get inside, having spent a small fortune on cocktails (served in jars that have never seen jam) you see the decor. Now, assuming this visit is between 2012 and now, it’s very likely to comprise of Manhattan-style exposed brick walls, relicked leather banquettes and those dim light bulbs you get with a visible filament.
Some would argue that as an aesthetic it is not unpleasant, but there’s absolutely nothing Manhattan about it at all. Some intrepid American cook and his son have not taken a steamboat over the pond to bring authentic, slow-cooked barbecue meats to the Brits. Contrary to what the website might say. The reality is that some late-twenties media bod has come up with a cynical way to force-feed people a novelty shabby-chic fib. And that makes me feel weird.
Imagine an over-priced Disney Land for the nearly peckish. London’s most ‘in’ restaurants are stepping into The Matrix. Its patrons have taken the blue pill of blissful ignorance, where hyper-real environs are created in order that you non-coercively pay wads for what seems like an authentic experience.
But it isn’t. No matter how cool the playlist. The industry’s obsession with magpieing – and then anglicising – cuisines, themes and light bulbs from around the world has even seen restaurant makers at the high-end jump on the brand wagon.
The D&D London group, for example, recently sellotaped an all-American menu to Avenue’s offering. Barbecue food, however sublime, in St James’s is like hearing that your well-heeled uncle has bought a pair of Converse and wants to take up breakdancing lessons. Super-cool British hotelier Firmdale is about to open Ham Yard Hotel in Soho, which will feature an LA- style ‘dive bar’. Except of course, it won’t be.
As quickly as these en vogue food catwalks arrive, they will disappear. Overhearing two foodies gush, ‘I love ethnic Easter Island fare, it’s so on-trend,’ is a very real possibility. Compare all that tosh with a restaurant like The Matsuri, off Jermyn Street. It offers its guests traditional Japanese food, served by those who know how to do it best. No sterilised simulacra, no queues, no concept – and it’s done it for 20 years. Nothing fashionable and the best black cod I’ve ever tasted.
Closer to home, our recent obsession with ‘Best of British’ had a good run – for about 18 months. Just when you thought we’d finally stop behaving like Ritalin-riddled, ADD toddlers, settling into a mature take on our own island’s food, it was replaced with pulled pork and beef brisket. Best of what? So here’s my plea: fashion, get back to your wardrobe and leave the kitchen alone. I just want to eat in peace.
Donald Twain is a hugely renowned food writer and restaurant insider who has on occasion used an alias or, indeed, prosthetic face mask to write his scabrous reviews on everything culinary. He likes chips.