My first editor at the FT gave me two pieces of avuncular advice fifteen years ago. "Don't ever take yourself too seriously," he said " and don't bother to write about restaurants in the City [London's financial district]. Our readers spend their week there and they certainly don't want to read about it at the weekend."
Nothing will ever make me forsake the first point but it does seem from a series of comments, figures, facts and news of chefs' moves that restaurants in and around the City are experiencing a very firm upturn in business. And, from my own experience that the standards of cooking are far, far higher than they were fifteen or even five years ago.
The City is of course not quite the parochial village it used to be although the Square Mile remains as intact and as quiet as ever at the weekends. But around the periphery there have been huge changes, in many instances initiated by restaurateurs.
Sir Terence Conran must take a great deal of credit for its first phase when he opened up Butler's Wharf by Tower Bridge with Pont de la Tour, Cantina del Ponte, Butler's Wharf Chop House and, best of all in my opinion, the Blueprint Cafe above the adjacent Design Museum where Jeremy Lee is the chef, in the early 1990's.
This must have been a terrific gamble then not helped by the almost simultaneous, deep recession and I know that the Chop House's early days were very sticky indeed. This opening was also a shock to many London restaurant critics whose vision then never went much further than the West End and Chelsea.
But the potential from the City and also from the many who live in east and south east London and beyond soon became obvious to many restaurateurs ensuring that there was considerable competition for what was to become the restaurant and brasserie on the eighth floor of Oxo Tower eventually masterminded by Dominic Ford of Harvey Nichols. Although not even he could have imagined in his most optimistic business plan that what would emerge would be the capital's largest grossing revenue with sales of over £14 million last year and one whose combination of location, view and sense of fun allowed it to take over £80,000 on Valentine's Day alone earlier this year.
Theodore Kyriakou's The Real Greek had the same effect on hitherto neglected Hoxton, between Islington and the City, and after Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson came together to kickstart the renaissance of Smithfield with St John restaurant they unwittingly provided a bar in which chef John Torode and his partners could plot the tortuous transformation of a former meat depot round the corner into Smiths of Smithfield.
No other place quite epitomises the changes around the City as much as this particular restaurant incorporating as it does a ground floor which serves hearty breakfasts and later in the day a considerable amount of alcohol (a good day's takings can be around £10,000 on the ground floor alone); the less formal restaurant where the music seems to me to be the loudest in the country; and the more formal dining room at the top. The latter not only has the advantage of more great views but also means that any late afternoon bon viveur has a good chance of not being spotted. And, as testimony to the growing competition in the area, menu and beer prices have only changed once since the restaurant opened four years ago – the kind of financial prudence of which the Chancellor would heartily approve.
All these restaurants have conspicuously and successfully incorporated a hugely important bar. While there has undoubtedly been a significant move for many away from drinking at lunchtime, this seems to have been compensated for by a huge thirst amongst both sexes early evening – within months of opening next to the Museum of Docklands 1802 restaurant and bar in Canary Wharf had become the biggest seller of Heineken in the country.
But the two most recent culinary improvements in the City are taking place in more long established clubs close to one another near Cannon Street.
The first has involved the injection of the talents of Jean- Christophe Novelli into the London Capital Club which began life as The Gresham Club in 1914 and bears all the striking interior design of that era.
Novelli, when he is under strict management and told to dispense with the otherwise ubiquitous white truffle oil, is a highly talented chef who is also, quite obviously, bringing out the best in his talented sous-chef, Winston Smalley. The club has two dining rooms: a more formal restaurant on the first floor which strives to combine the modern with the more traditional via daily specials off a carving trolley and first courses such as a tian of Brixham crab and smoked eel and a cream of celeriac and cep mushroom chowder and an extensive brasserie menu in the basement which intelligently incorporates daily fricassee and rotisserie specials into a keenly priced two and three course 'menu rapide'.
Nothing initially seems at all 'rapide' round the corner at The Walbrook club built in 1952 by property developer Lord Palumbo's late father and then converted in the late 1990's with great taste and equal amounts of capital into one of those jewels of a house that anyone would want to own until they knew the true cost of its conversion and upkeep.
But there has been a significant improvement in the club's food and service since Lady Palumbo convinced Michel Roux Jnr of Le Gavroche to reinvigorate the kitchens to which he commutes daily via the Central Line. At lunch there is a range of very well executed British classics (Roux was in fact born in Kent!): omelette Arnold Bennett; devilled whitebait; grilled Dover sole and steak and kidney pie as well as the more esoteric spring white truffle risotto and poached cod with aioli.
In the evening the dining room often becomes a venue for corporate entertaining with the presence of a William Hogarth painting and an Elizabeth Frick sculpture inter alia adding a touch of class not available to most restaurateurs.
Le Pont de la Tour, 020-7403-8403
Butler's Wharf Chop House, 020-7403 3403
Cantina del Ponte, 020-7403 5403
Blueprint Cafe, 020-7378 7031
Oxo Tower, 020-7803 3888
The Real Greek, 020-7739 8212
St John, 020-7251 0848
1802 0870-444 3866
Smiths of Smithfield, 020-7251 7997
London Capital Club, 020-7717 0088
The Walbrook club, 020-7623 6100
And just last week Mark Sainsbury, who helped to put Moro and Clerkenwell on the gastronomic map seven years ago, opened up the Victorian corner site that once housed the Zetters pools company as The Zetter (www.thezetter.com). It comprises a smoky, crowded bar; an informal restaurant which serves uncompromisingly gutsy Italian food; and 59 bedrooms complete with twenty first century electronics and hot water bottles.
Moro 020-7833 8336
The Zetter 020-324 4455
2 Apr 2004