Eating in London 20 years ago

Paperback version of On The Menu

Nick’s first two articles published in the first few days of back in late 2000. Plus his new book.

Our 20th anniversary gives me, one of this website’s two longest-serving contributors, the opportunity to explore the old and the new.

The new is the paperback edition of my second book, On The Menu, just published by the estimable Unbound at £18.99. This handsomely illustrated rendition explores the life, times and many of the stories behind the menu, which I describe, with considerable justification, as ‘the world’s favourite piece of paper’.

What unites my two reviews from late 2000 and this book are the considerable changes wrought by COVID-19. Just as all these restaurants have had to change and adapt – in the case of Smithfield to a much quieter City of London, and to the 10 pm curfew – so too have the designers of the beautiful menus and wine lists that grace my book.

Out, for the time being at least, have gone elaborate and multi-coloured menus. Wine lists are now far more likely to be found on QR codes and iPads. Menus are far more likely to be printed daily on a single sheet of paper because they will be binned that night.

On The Menu has become something I never imagined it would be: a memoir of an era when chefs and restaurateurs could take pride not just in the elegance of their food and service but also in the presentation, design and style of their menus.

Here are my two 20-year-old articles, each updated in italics at the top.


Moro has since spawned two branches of the equally delicious tapas bar Morito, one next door in Exmouth Market and the other on Hackney Road.

According to one of London’s toughest and most successful literary agents there has never been a battle like it. Publishers were apparently falling over themselves to up the ante to secure the rights to the first Moro cookbook, which husband and wife Sam and Samantha Clarke will produce in May 2001 for Ebury Press, the eventual winners.

Judging by a meal there last week it is obvious to see why the Clarkes’ innovative combination of the best of southern Spanish and North African cooking has proved so distinctive and popular and why their cookbook is likely to sell so well (although some of the seemingly simple dishes may involve more hours in the kitchen than many are led to believe is the norm in view of the Jamie Oliver school of cooking, for example).

All our food showed an intricacy of execution that will test but ultimately satisfy an amateur chef. A filo pastry brik filled with anchovy, egg and coriander; crescent-shaped sambouseks filled with spinach and pumpkin; wood-roasted skate wings with carrots, garlic and sherry vinegar; and spicy lamb cutlets with braised turnips, paprika and pinto beans. And despite the restaurant’s three years of continued success, prices are still reasonable with the most expensive main course only £14.50.

But the proof of just what a well-run one-off Moro still is came after the desserts – a chocolate and apricot tart, an orange and almond torte and a refreshing yoghurt cake with pomegranate – when I pointed out to our waitress that there had been a pistachio shell in the yoghurt cake which probably wasn’t supposed to be there. She was extremely apologetic and promptly took all the desserts off the bill – a practice sadly not adopted by the Marco Pierre White empire.

Moro 34/36 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QE; tel: 020 7833 8336

Smithfield – a new London village

Most of the cafés mentioned below no longer operate but there are many more restaurants of note such as Luca and Vinoteca. We have highlighted in bold below the outfits still in business (though Smiths of Smithfield is now part of Young & Co’s Brewery PLC).

London, rather romantically, is still considered a series of villages, with Hampstead, Kensington, Chelsea and Soho the most frequently mentioned and sought after.

In reality, with congested roads and unreliable public transport it can take as long to get between any of these neighbouring villages as it takes to have a good lunch, so it is increasingly important to know where precisely you can find a wide choice of good places to eat and drink. This is how Soho first made its mark in the 1950s and 1960s before losing out to Covent Garden in the 1970s and subsequently making a significant revival.

But today the most exciting London village for eating and drinking is undoubtedly Smithfield, London EC1, the area around the famous meat market. On the rise for the past five years, Smithfield has, thanks to the market which starts at midnight, its proximity to the financial district, The City, which keeps it busy during the day and early evening, and clubs such as Fabric (in a former meat cold store) which closes at 3 am, suddenly emerged as London’s first 24-hour village. Try the following:

Fantoni, Ferrari, Butts, the busy cafés that feed the market porters, or The Hope & Sir Loin, or Fox & Anchor pubs with meat restaurants attached and an alcohol licence from 7 am.

Rudland & Stubbs (020 7253 0148) or Stream (020 7796 0070) for fish, oysters and cut-price champagne; Jamies (020 7600 0700) next to Stream is a new wine bar with keen wine prices.

For chef Fergus Henderson’s really gutsy British food, head for the bar, bakery and restaurant at St John (020 7251 0848); for food of a similar style but with more cosmopolitan influences (chef John Torode is Australian) visit the multi-layered Smiths of Smithfield (020 7251 6144), while on the south side of the market chef Pascal Aussignac offers an extraordinary range of flavours and wines from his native south-west France at the restaurant Club Gascon (020 7600 6144) and the wine bar Cellar Gascon (now called Le Bar), next door.

Finally, anyone who wants to appreciate what Smithfield was like before it became this 24-hour village should visit the church of St Bartholomew the Great built in 1123 whose entrance is next door to Club Gascon and whose small garden is, as far as I know, the only place in Smithfield where alcohol is banned.