London restaurants – at tipping point?


I can still recall the details of a conversation 15 years ago with my friend Danny Meyer, the successful New York restaurateur, photographed above at his restaurant Maialino by Melissa Hom. 

He was explaining his role, and in particular one aspect of its many different challenges. ‘I have to point out to many of my younger colleagues who have joined USHG [the Union Square Hospitality Group] over the past decade that trade does not necessarily get better; that every new opening is not necessarily full immediately after it has opened; and that, as is now the custom with financial products, the value of everything we launch can go down as well as up.’

I was reminded of Meyer's sage words just the other day and in fact emailed him accordingly. My view is that the London restaurant scene is currently at a tipping point – the assumption that the market can go on rising exponentially is being challenged. And what is true for London today has to have repercussions not just around the UK but also, given London's restaurant pre-eminence for at least the past decade, around the rest of Europe.

Here are half a dozen reasons why I believe that this is the case. As most of this is the result of self-inflicted wounds, I will not ask for any sympathy. Just, perhaps, for a little understanding.

The most obvious reason is the Brexit choice last June and its many implications. The most evident is the dearth of applicants for all kinds of roles from young people working in Berlin, Paris, Stockholm, Barcelona – in fact from all over Europe – who want to bring their skills to the UK. Two of the distinguishing aspects of the approach of many of London's restaurateurs to opening new restaurants over the past decade has been an apparent disdain for whether there would be enough staff to fill them coupled with a failure on the part of many to train enough staff, both front of house and in the kitchen (although the influence of TV in filling these gaps has helped to a certain extent).

Who has not been served by a charming young waiter or waitress from Naples, Valencia or Lyons? Or shown to their table by a smiling receptionist from Germany, Scandinavia or Portugal? Or had their wine order taken by a sommelier from Paris, Frankfurt or Rome who has explained their presence in London quite simply because they benefit from the much wider range of wines available in London than at home?

All this is now under threat. The chains Pret and EAT have already reported that the number of applicants from young people currently living in Milan and Paris has dried up, just as the percentage of applications from young European nurses seeking to work in the UK has declined to 4% of the previous year's total. Until the final announcement is made on the freedom of movement of people at the end of the two-year timetable so hastily drawn up by our prime minister, then this situation will only persist. And one of its consequences will be a diminution in the number of new restaurant openings.

This situation has been compounded by another consequence of this, to me disastrous, vote – the precipitous decline in the value of sterling. Approximately 40% of all food the UK consumes is imported, as is all of the wine, save the small amount of English wine which is hardly inexpensive, and this fall is now being reflected in the price tags on the shelves of British supermarkets and on most British wine lists.

Prices may have been held for most of 2016 on many wine lists as restaurateurs and their wine merchants tried to absorb the dramatic fall in sterling but a year on this can no longer be the case, sadly. Wine prices have to go up and quite significantly – and the repercussions for the world's wine trade seem equally serious if the predictions of Australian economist Professor Kym Anderson are to be believed – and this will affect customers' wallets and restaurateurs' income for the worse.

These gloomy predictions would matter less if the omens for the British economy were more optimistic. The latest inflation figures of a rise of 2.9% is well ahead of the rise in earnings, a disparity that has to herald a slow-down in consumer spending. The only light at the end of the tunnel is that as sterling continues to fall then London's restaurants, and those of the rest of the UK, become increasingly attractive to anyone spending with a stronger currency in their pocket – whether US dollars, euros or Chinese yuan.

Such customers are increasingly visible. Tables of young Asians eating at restaurants recommended invariably either via Michelin or by social media can be found in increasing numbers and conveniently at times when they are most welcome by restaurateurs: either at the start of lunch or towards the end of their service. French, Italian and American customers will also be more prevalent as London becomes a sort of 'pleasure dome' for those enjoying the consequences of seeing their credit card amounts translated into their far stronger currency. But that is no great balm to the restaurateurs and their margins.

This is all happening after a frenzy of new restaurants across London. I remain quite dubious about the published numbers of new restaurants, as many restaurateurs have simply taken the place of others that have either failed, or have decided to take the premium offered by a younger and more optimistic operator. There is not a hotel or significant property developer who has not been searching out new chefs and restaurateurs with which to open their buildings.

But there have certainly been plenty of new names, and now there is not a quartier of London without a plethora of good restaurants: East London, Victoria, King’s Cross and, soon, Battersea – plus Soho as well as central London, of course. The end will not be dramatic either. Plenty of new restaurants are in the pipeline. And it may be that the next upswing will happen more swiftly than is anticipated.

But I remain sceptical. Like my friend in New York, I recall having seen a confluence of similar events – with worrying consequences.