Small, unbookable and very busy


On the Monday before Christmas I walked from Covent Garden and into Soho and past several well-known London landmarks. The crowds around Leicester Square tube station; the relative quiet at 11.45 am outside Maison Bertaux on Greek Street; and then, turning on to Old Compton Street, I caught a glimpse of three Japanese chefs scurrying out of Dozo restaurant for a quick cigarette before their lunch service got under way.

I then turned into the bottom of Frith Street and was immediately made aware of one of the biggest changes in our eating habits. There were queues of people along the left-hand side of the street. Nobody was outside the long- established Bar Italia on the right-hand side but there were plenty of people waiting patiently for their first taste of the day of a Sri Lankan delicacy; of, possibly, a Japanese breakfast or some noodles; or perhaps several Spanish tapas washed down by a glass of sherry.

These queues, of between 12 and 15 people in each case, were respectively outside Hoppers, the recently opened and very hot restaurant that has risen from the ashes of Koya and before that was the home to Alastair Little; outside the next door Koya Bar that was already full; while the queue seemed longest outside the original Barrafina, the brainchild of Sam and Eddie Hart, who have astutely opened two larger branches, one in Adelaide Street close to Trafalgar Square, the other on Drury Lane close to the Royal Opera House.

In each case there were certain common factors. Firstly, the atmosphere was very light-hearted. Secondly, there was a lot of chat among those who were waiting patiently as new friendships were presumably being made. Finally, those who were waiting so patiently, particularly outside Hoppers, were obviously doing the right thing. When we returned later in the week at 6.30 pm for what we hoped would be a convivial early supper – we have very fond memories of hoppers, cooked fresh for breakfast during our stay in Sri Lanka – we were politely informed by the young man standing firmly inside the door with his back to those waiting outside, that our wait would be at least 90 minutes. Regretfully, we moved on.

This move to small restaurants that take no bookings, that serve one particular style of food and generate an enthusiastic following is not new. It started in New York, where a growing number of chefs, led by David Chang at Momofuko, moved into atmospheric places, initially downtown, and set up shop.

I recall quite vividly a conversation with Pete Wells, my counterpart at the New York Times, over lunch at Calliope on the Lower East Side then in the wonderfully capable hands of chef Eric Korsh, now behind the range at Danny Meyer’s North End Grill. This was the spring of 2013 and Wells was not a happy man. It wasn’t the paper’s management that was causing him grief but the new wave of chefs and restaurateurs who were opening up across the city, and not just Brooklyn but Queens and all points west, and making life very difficult for him. I remember him saying that to make sure he was in the queue, waiting for a new place’s doors to open, he was having to leave his desk as early as 4 pm.

Obviously, this has all been made easier by social media but there is one other important factor at play: those who want to eat this sort of casual fun food do not seem to mind queuing, waiting, and then, when finally inside, sitting pretty close to the next table.

This was brought home to me during a conversation with an American currently living in London. The day before we met, one of her daughters had flown in from the US to spend Christmas with her parents and the first thing she had wanted to do was to go on a long walk. Not an aimless walk, however, but from Islington close to the City of London to the very French neighbourhood of South Kensington and with a very particular goal in mind.

Her destination was a cramped pastry shop, Aux Merveilleux, that has seating for only six along the left-hand wall with far more space given over to the ovens and the busy bakers. Founded in the 1980s by Frédéric Vaucamps, then a young baker, whose first transformation was of the humble kramiek, a small brioche stuffed with raisins, before turning his culinary imagination to a range humbly described as les merveilleux or ‘the wonders’ (all dependent on whether you are a dentist or not).

These ultra-sweet pastries take various forms. The merveilleux itself is a chocolate cream meringue topped with chocolate shavings and comes in sizes ranging from an individual one to a large cake for 24, while l’impensable (the unthinkable) is the same but covered in coffee. They are hugely popular. Although, having said that, I do believe that Vaucamps is as astute a judge of where his creations will sell as he is of making them. Outside ‘Frog Valley’, as this area is widely known, his creations may be slightly less in demand and his other branches are suitably located in Bruges, Brussels and Paris inter alia.

In Soho I continued walking across Bateman Street and into Dean Street, where another queue was forming, this time outside Burger & Lobster, the clever spin-off from Russian restaurateur Mikhail Zelman’s first Goodman steak restaurant in Moscow, where I first ate a decade ago. Here he has built on that: no menu; a good burger; a great deal of inexpensive Canadian lobster that he sources directly from Newfoundland; and lashings of fun. And, of course, no bookings unless you are in a party of 10 or more.

London has become the most exciting city for these chefs and restaurateurs to operate in because it is so attractive to them personally and professionally. Hoppers was opened by the Indians who first opened Trishna, then Gymkhana and then had such success with Bao on Lexington Street, Soho, where the speciality is these delicious, stuffed Taiwanese buns. Burger & Lobster, Barrafina and Aux Merveilleux have all had similar success, as will many more in the future.

The demand is obviously there. But who, where and when, and selling precisely what, remains much more difficult to predict.

The photo above is taken from the Aux Merveilleux website.