If you get into the habit of writing about restaurants for a living, then there are some general rules you soon realise that you should adhere to. “Never take a free meal” would be my first one. It will undoubtedly be the worst meal of your life and you’ll have to lie through your teeth about it later on Instagram Stories.
Restaurant critics, that rarefied breed of food writers, learn to take on even more rules that involve booking under assumed names, ignoring the fact your parents both have blue links on Wikipedia and trying to pretend you’re not Mr Jay Rayner when you are quite unavoidably Mr Jay Rayner. Good for them, but that’s not what I have to do. As a lowly restaurant writer, I’ve spent the past few years eating around London. The actual London, not just the bit coloured in the most alarming shade of red on a London property map. Getting so many Tubes and buses that TfL should offer me sponsorship, putting together extensive guides to the types of restaurant that channel the saved energy in not having to know who Mr William Sitwell is (a small mercy) into actually serving their community.
Not being a critic also means I don’t review restaurants exactly. Instead, food just features in my guides like a particular sweet keyboard tone in the back of an ambient track.
Rather than telling you exactly what to eat and why, I have room to observe things about London, the idiosyncrasies of its boroughs and the changing eating habits and culture of Londoners, which I have done over 125 small restaurant profiles in the new book I’ve edited, London Feeds Itself. Here are some things that I have noticed…
01. Sohofication is ruining restaurants
By this I don’t mean that all restaurants in Soho are bad – some of my best friends are Soho restaurants – but that every restaurant in Soho is more or less exactly the same restaurant. The same seasonal, British produce prepared with a modern edge. The same two-to-three small plates. The same suppliers. The same charcoal grills. The same menu design. The same fittings. The same landlord, just with a different cuisine attached.
Sohofication homogenises beyond Soho: Fitzrovia is Soho for people who don’t know what a Sichuan peppercorn is. Chelsea is Soho for people who find Kensington “a bit rough”. Mayfair is Soho for the worst humans alive.
02. Most of the best restaurants in London are in areas that would have got a shout out in a late-1990s DFS advert
New Malden! Edmonton! Croydon! (OK, maybe not Croydon.)
03. The wait at a Caribbean takeaway is directly proportional to how good the food will be
The proper wait time for a three-person queue should be at least 40 minutes and you should have learnt the life story of everyone in the queue before you pick up your patty.
04. The queue in a central London restaurant is directly proportional to how much you’re about to get scammed
05. Google review star ratings need to be adjusted for where the restaurant is
Google reviews have become so detailed that you could very easily become a restaurant writer sitting at your desk eating a fish finger sandwich, discovering new places with the click of a button. Lifting critiques from users marked “Level 12 – Local Guide” like they’re some kind of Dungeons & Dragons mage. And you could do a good job, up to a point.
But Google review star ratings need to be adjusted for where the restaurant is and who is reviewing it. For example, there is the “irate uncle Google review fallacy”, which means that pretty much all Indian and Pakistani restaurants in zone 4 areas of London are given incredibly severe ratings because they get marked down on things like “couldn’t feed my family of five for £10” and “waited three hours for food” (which means anything more than 10 minutes). If a restaurant like this is even edging a 3.5, then it’s basically The Ritz.
The flipside to the “irate uncle Google review fallacy” is the “easily pleased suburbanite Google review fallacy”. There are people in Bromley who are still impressed by Pizza Express.
06. There are no bad Ethiopian restaurants in London
This might seem like a sweeping statement, but I’ve run the numbers on this and it’s true. Don’t believe me? Go to your local Ethiopian restaurant. Did you have a bad meal? I thought not.
07. The industrial estate is nature’s food hall
08. You cannot find diasporic food in central London better than you can get in the suburbs
With the very major anomaly of Malaysian food, which has a monopoly on reasonably priced canteens in areas of London more commonly known for high-stakes money laundering. Putera Puteri, Tukdin, Melur, Warisan, Makan Café, Malay Fellas, Layang. They’re all keeping west London interesting one nasi lemak at a time.
09. 99 per cent of Mexican food in London should be avoided
The people running them have only read about tacos in books. It’s the modern equivalent of Victorian authors trying to write about the Americas based on drawings by 17th-century colonial explorers.
10. All the best Greek and Cypriot restaurants in London run solely on takeaway orders
If you see anyone actually eating in them: avoid. Conversely, all the best Turkish and Kurdish restaurants should be filled with lads trying to eat a mixed grill at least one size too big for them, and at least one lonely man nursing a soup.
11. There isn’t a single area in London that doesn’t have something worthwhile in, with the massive exception of Hampstead
12. Every London restaurant that gets a national review is suspect until proven otherwise
13. London’s vernacular food is Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Kurdish, Cypriot and fried chicken. In that order
By this I mean that every Londoner will eat these foods as naturally as they breathe without even really considering their origin: newsagents samosas, late-night mixed grills, mystery shawarma, last resort jalfrezi.
More than this, though, you can find their influence on institutions usually considered to be British, particularly its caffs and chippies, which are stewarded and improved by successive generations of immigrants. And sometimes, they merge together, like in the Bangladeshi east London PFCs, where you can find anything from naga chicken wings to doner biryani.
14. There are at least six Chinatowns in London
All of which fulfil a different function for different people. There’s Soho (tourists), Bayswater (famous Asian-American actors who want lobster noodles), Bloomsbury (students who want hotpot), the Docklands (families for go-big-or-go-home dim sum), Spitalfields (students who want noodles) and Barnet (retired grandparents).
Soon, there will be King’s Cross (students again) and Sutton (new arrivals from Hong Kong who want the place in London that feels least like Hong Kong).
15. The people who really know what’s going on in the London food world don’t actually work in food
They’re not chefs (who barely visit restaurants not owned by their friends). They’re not influencers (who barely eat what they’re paid to photograph). They’re not even necessarily me. They’re your bank clerk, your mutuals on Twitter, your friend’s mum. As Mr Yasujirō Ozu once said, “Small talk makes the world go round.” Talk to people.
16. Never order starters in a Turkish restaurant
17. The most consequential event in changing London restaurants was not the invention of no-reservations restaurants (Polpo, 2008), nor the invention of Thai food (some white guy, every year since 2010), but the creation of Brixton Village
From that came Franco Manca, Honest Burgers and almost every type of restaurant that makes a diverse, interesting neighbourhood more appealing to the most boring people in the city. The evil it has wrought is immeasurable.
18. You cannot talk about “Morley’s” as one thing. Every Morley’s is different and unique as a snowflake
19. Most of the really interesting things in London are happening due to creative uses of space
The spiralling property market means that these uses of space are becoming even more creative. You can find some of the best food in the city in railway arches, in small arcades sharing space with hairdressers, in the most boring suburban shopping centres, in vans parked up outside closed pubs or industrial estates.
Every time it feels there’s nowhere left to go, someone finds something, like Mr Thomas Müller popping up out of nowhere to tap in a goal.
20. Restaurants are not necessarily the best way to experience London’s wealth of food options
Over the 25 chapters in London Feeds Itself, you will find that there is food in mosques and gurdwaras. There are barbecues going on in parks and parties in church halls. There are street markets that do not sell street food, but all matter of produce and meals in Tupperware that keep the city running. There are things being grown to eat in vineyards and allotments and communal gardens. And they are all, by and large, available to you if you want to become embedded in your neighbourhood and community.
21. £1.99 is simply too low a price to pay for good biryani