In the 1980s, no Londoner would have dared call the city a top culinary destination, and I should know since I was there. There were sporadic bright spots, such as fine-dining landmarks like the still-open Le Gavroche, but regular Brits would not have frequently entered through its green baize-lined doors. No, London in the 1980s was a metropolis of fish and chip shops or Berni Inn steakhouses serving the same old mushy peas.
But three decades later, it’s hardly recognizable: London is undoubtedly one of the most crucial restaurant towns in the world, and it is home to a host of big-name chefs who is redefining food. The Clove Cub’s Isaac McHale, Story’s Tom Sellers, and Ollie Dabbous’ four-year-old restaurant, whose seats are reserved four months in advance (any cancellations are filled with a modern twist—via its Twitter feed), are among the Noma alums. However, how did the eating scene in London change so significantly in less than 30 years?
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Harden believed that Quaglino’s re-opening, in which the famous Art Deco restaurant received a radical makeover with the help of former interior design master Terence Conran, was even more significant (and was even name-checked in Ab Fab). In addition to defining the modern London restaurant, Conran’s emphasis on seamless service, plenty (bottomless bread baskets were a trademark), and unabashed splendor made Quaglino’s Q-shaped ashtrays the preferred, eh, souvenir of 1990s London. Together, this unexpected pairing of eateries developed a model for approachable, media-friendly cuisine that has been imitated by most of London’s best chefs.
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The new generation of cooks has also contributed to social media’s evolution. Instead of competitors, millennial kitchen sergeants like Dabbous or Isaac McHale are now allies or even buddies. It starkly contrasts the early years of excellent Britannia cuisine, when Gordon Ramsay made headlines for snatching Marco Pierre White’s restaurant reservation book in the late 1990s to boost his business. These friendly chefs understand the value of cooperating rather than competing to increase the reputation of British cuisine and London’s dining scene on a more prominent international stage.