Expanding Horizons

Leaving London, however briefly is always an opportunity to reflect on London life. As the train rattles on, city giving way to suburb, industrial estates and finally countryside  horizons expand and perspective is gained. Not being a native Londoner I have always been vocal and supportive of the cultural and culinary life that goes on outside the capital.

Whenever I’ve left London over the last year or so I’ve been asking myself the same questions: is the boom in restaurants and the seemingly never ending calendar of openings at all sustainable? With good staff being hard to find and so much of the scene dictated by fashion? Currently it feels like restaurateurs are madly scrambling around for the next hit concept (with journalists and bloggers champing at the bit to be first in the queue for the Next Big Thing). Now even the most mundane, and frankly tasteless of ingredients are being made the star players – see La Polenteria in Soho. Do we really need this? Is that going to be a restaurant you want to come back to time and again? Is that a restaurant that can build a loyal and varied customer base?

Luckily outside the more fashionable London postcodes this neophilia is not much in evidence. Yet running a restaurant outside these key areas comes with its own pitfalls, especially when so many of our town centers have now been sold off to the usual chains with their marketing budgets and competitive pricing. What you do need to have, if you are an indie restaurateur is a product that is inclusive, fairly priced and accessible – somewhere that works just as well for a weekend brunch as it does for a special occasion or Saturday night date. That is a very difficult thing to do.

It is hard after seven years in the London restaurant world to see objectively. As much as it is important to know what is going on in the industry in the capital, I am finding increasingly that to immerse yourself fully is an ultimately meaningless and sisyphistic taskthough many bloggers, journalists, Tweeters and PRs would have you believe otherwise.

In short, much has happened in those years that is welcomed: there is now a surfeit of brilliant looking restaurants, many exciting chefs and some great food. Trends, like the move away from a formal dining environment, which is still to be found at many of the smarter restaurants outside London (see any number of terrible country house hotels that litter the Shires), has been great for the average restaurant goer and I hope these begin to proliferate the restaurant world outside London – unfortunately one form of democratization has led to other more obscure forms of discrimination – the wrong clothes, being over 35, wanting to book a table etc. and of course the many misguided restaurant ‘concepts’, or chefs with grand ideas destined to failure.

I was in Norwich at the weekend, a city that I have a lot of affection for having spent my university years there. This weekend’s visit was my first in a long time and I was very happy to see that on the surface at least it appeared to be doing well. I visited a few restaurants, including a great place called Frank’s café, which may well have been there when I was but a student, foggy memory prevents me remembering. Frank’s had the all-day dining / drinking thing down, from brunch to late night cocktails – during the course of the weekend we visited it three times and it was always packed. We also went for dinner at Nigel Raffle’s Library (the closest Norwich gets to a restaurant mogul), which was very good also – it is never going to turn the restaurant world on its head, but then it doesn’t need to.

I think the future for a city like Norwich is incredibly bright; home to a university (UEA) whose stock and regard has never been higher; culturally and historically rich Norwich has recently become a UNESCO City of Literature, England’s first and one of just seven around the world, joining Edinburgh, Dublin and Melbourne amongst others. The image of a slightly backward and parochial city is finally being buried.

As house prices in London and its environs force out the young and creative, or those who are looking to re-evaluate what they want from life (me), places like Norwich stand to gain a lot – including restaurants. All I hope is that their proprietors don’t feel that they have to ape London or Noma, (or wherever) – a lot of the current faddishness, especially in the culinary world can be happily left at Liverpool Street Station or in Denmark and that they heed my alumnus’s motto “do different.”