IIt was the year we longed for the normality of a restaurant meal, whatever the abnormality of the experience for that to happen. It doesn’t matter that the waiters are hidden or that the tables are scattered around the room as if they are being prepared for an interrogation, or that there may be screens between these tables. If the basics were there – a list of dishes you didn’t cook yourself, someone to look for them, a dish pass – many of us were there for that. Sometimes we felt like all of us, customers and employees, were working really hard to share this illusion of normalcy.
But 2021 was not normal. I started mine by painting my shelves for satisfying cookbooks to fill a restaurant column with when all restaurants were closed. I rediscovered the talent of great recipe authors and cooks such as Claudia Roden, Simon Hopkinson and the late Gary Rhodes. The latter finally taught me to swallow my shame and learn to make custard from scratch. Custard defeated; acquired life skills. Thanks, Gary. You may not be here anymore, but you have held my hand from beyond the grave.
When the time finally came, I took the opportunity to step out of my own kitchen like an A-level student galloping out of the exam room after the final exam. I recently made a list of the best dining experiences of the last year and the top three that came to my mind were all outside of London. I loved the butch and daring cuisine of Double Red Duke in Oxfordshire, with its kidneys stuffed in shiny gravy and fatty scallops under flakes of garlic crumbs. The sunny early evening I spent in the Sonny stores in Bristol, sweeping the bulk of the salted anchovies on crusty bread and demolishing a plate of perfect meringues with white peaches, will stay with me for a very long time. And then there was Erst’s little menu in Manchester, which offered a lot more than it promised: bubbling, blistered flatbreads drenched in garlic butter; steak tartare in a garish tonnato sauce; a berry panna cotta that melted on the tongue.
In a time when polarized opinions have become a spectator sport, someone somewhere is now going to extrapolate from that that all restaurants in London are so awful. Obviously not. The dish I had the most correspondence on was the golden carbohydrate and dairy fat wonder of a Double XL and Triple Cheese Toastie served to me at Wigmore. People have shared photos of their own on social media, like tourists proving they too had visited Angkor Wat while on vacation. Only, it was an Angkor Wat made from roasted sourdough, Ogleshield, raclette and Montgomery cheddar. Elsewhere in the capital, I was delighted with the intense nerdiness of Humble Chicken where many specific parts of the bird were carefully grilled on sticks over hot coals. Oh, that line of pastors’ noses.
Honorable mentions must also go to the bravery of the Dirik brothers of Mangal 2 who broke with the traditions of the many Turkish grill houses around them in Dalston, to serve something a little more subtle and, in his curious way. , Scandinavian. And then there’s the extraordinary bespoke sushi experience Chris Restrepo told Kurisu Omakase, operating in his parents’ cafe in Brixton. I love dinner and a show so much.
But if you want some silliness in the restaurant business, if you want a business proposition that will make you roll your eyes so aggressively that your neighbors will be able to hear the ball rubbing against the socket, capital is always guaranteed to deliver. It says a lot about the truly horrible people you all are, that when I finally broke my self-imposed ban on negative reviews by dismembering the Polo Lounge pop-up on the roof of the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane in London , this has become my most read review of the year online. They deserved it for scoring the standard bog wines by a factor of six or seven, and charging Â£ 38 for a McCarthy salad that looked like someone who tried to color code vegetables as part of a one-day intermediary management liaison.
The second most read review online? It had to be my stupid stunt past Salt Bae’s Nusr-et Steakhouse in Knightsbridge, during which I turned down a super expensive gold leaf-wrapped steak in favor of a take-out from the wonderful Kebab Kid. I’ll admit I felt a bit of a fool sitting at a picnic table on the sidewalk outside, but not as much, dare I, as all those people who still go there for Â£ 1,000 of wrapped steaks. gold leaf, even though dear Salt Bae – that’s Mr Bae to you – left London weeks ago, probably sprinkling various seasonings on his private jet while howling with laughter.
Of course, as I wandered from table to table with my back to the arduous task of eating my tea, the life of the restaurants themselves were a little less dreamy. Many reopened after the lockdown only to find the staff they depended on were simply no longer there. Some had reassessed what they expected from life during the pandemic and concluded that a tough job in the hospitality industry was not this one. Others were EU citizens who had simply returned home.
When I pointed out in a recent review that this forces restaurants to shorten their opening hours and blamed this squarely on Brexit, a number of people said that was a positive. This meant that people were no longer willing to work for what was too often the poor wages offered by hospitality. While I don’t think that negates the arguments against total Brexit bullshit, they are right.
Each week, the commentators of my online reviews compare the prices of British restaurants unfavorably to those in rural Thailand or the Ukraine, for example, without recognizing the differences between the economies. These comparisons are unnecessary. Running a UK restaurant is expensive and this past year has shown us just how fragile the industry’s business model can be. If we want to eat well and be served by well paid people, we will have to accept that it will continue to cost more. This does not mean that all the prices are good. Some restaurants take liberties. Good value is important. But the cost of restaurant meals is increasing. Don’t bother blaming me for that. It’s just a fact. And this will still be the case in 2022. See you next year.