In this weekend’s Sunday Times Magazine restaurant review AA Gill wrote: “Soho is the bulimic mall of finger food. Brick Lane and Shoreditch, likewise. Almost all of it whelping multiples, or proto chains….For the first time in 22 years I’ve been doing this, I sense that the overall quality of food in the capital is waning.”
It was once quite possible to be smug about food in London compared to Paris. And Gill makes the point that London is still nowhere near as conservative and boring as Paris – for now. In Paris, they have Chinese food, but here we choose between different regions and provinces of China: Cantonese, Hunanese, Taiwanese, Szechuan and many more. Often, the only way you can tell whether they’re any good or not is by the yellowing review in the window written by Jay Rayner, and yes, AA Gill, or Giles Coren.
And it seems that in Soho, independent clothes shops and record stores have given way to ersatz street food concepts. Herman Ze German anyone? Each one different in novelty, each one uniform in its overworked mediocrity. Too much branding, too much concept, and not enough good cooking.
Or is it? Soho is also home to the excellent, Princi, a high concept Italian eatery opened by one of the great restaurateurs of his generation, Alan Yau. Everything here, from the rough hewn marble tables, the logo, the name, to the exact size and shape of the cannolis have been precision tooled and engineered to great effect. It works, and the food is great.
In fact, Alan Yau specialises in the kind of branded proto-chains that Gill speaks ill of. Wagamama, Busaba Eathai, Yauatcha and Hakkasan were all Yau branded concepts before being sold to various hedge funds and private equity firms, and finally, rolled out across the world. No doubt, if it hasn’t already, Princi, will go the same way. All of Yau’s proto-chains were all highly respected and changed the culinary landscape in London in a positive way, introducing us to new flavours in highly contrived, but fun environments. The fact that he once said he wanted to open a Chinese food chain as big as McDonald’s tells you everything you need to know about the scale of his ambition.
Gill says rising rents means that the streets of London are now dominated by ‘Starbucks, Pret, Subway, Le Pain Quotidien, generic burgers, cloned Lebanese, Maze, Carluccio’s’ – squeezing out the kind of plain, moderately priced but tasty local independent operator that is the lifeblood of any city’s food scene. Indeed, many Londoners would hurl themselves off Tower Bridge if their local Szechuan was to stop serving up spicy treats.
However, as Yau shows, it is possible to be both high concept, branded and totally popular and good. Take another Soho restaurant, Bao, which Gill gave a gushing review to. Yes, you’ve guessed it. It’s backed by a private equity firm. It’s a ‘proto-chain’.
What we think
As Alan Yau shows branded restaurant chains don’t have to be bad. Great design, a clever concept and a powerful brand needn’t come at the expense of good food. In fact, they can enhance the experience of eating out. After all, not everyone is looking out for yellowing broadsheet restaurant reviews in the windows of anonymous local. If you’re a proto-chain with ambition, design, brand and concept should be at the heart of your thinking, but never at the expense of great food.