I can still recall two comments from the late J D F Jones, the Financial Times Weekend editor who hired me as the paper’s restaurant correspondent back in 1989.
The first was a quick question. ‘Do you want your byline to be Nick Lander or Nicholas Lander?’, he asked me briskly. I chose the latter (more gravitas, in my opinion) and I have been known by this name professionally ever since.
The second was a piece of advice, one of the few he bothered to give me. ‘Don’t write about any restaurants in the City', he said, referring to London’s old financial centre on the site of what was the original city of London. ‘Our readers spend Monday to Friday working there and they don’t want to read about it at the weekend.’
That was when the FT was based in Bracken House, before its move south across the river. It was also when I was introduced as ‘our new restaurant critic’ to a former editor of the paper, who grunted, ‘Have we really stooped to this?’. Soon after I joined, in January 1993, and with the support of my then Weekend editor Max Wilkinson, I persuaded the FT to run the Lunch for a Fiver promotion in which 130 of the UK’s restaurants offered FT readers a two-course lunch menu for £5. At the time this transformed many people’s opinion of ‘the pink ‘un’.
That was then, of course, when the City was not just male-dominated but still firmly a male-orientated district of London where stockbrokers worked and the memories of bowler hats and furled umbrellas, claret for lunch, and the place as quiet as the grave from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, still prevailed.
No longer. This has come home to me most forcibly over the past couple of years as I have found myself, wearing my consultant hat, working on two projects very much in the heart of the City.
The first, decidedly long-term, project has been centred on the new Norman Foster-designed headquarters for Bloomberg on the block that runs from Sweetings, the restaurant that still opens only for weekday lunches, along Queen Victoria Street to Mansion House, down the always-busy Walbrook, to the front of Cannon Street station and then back again along Cannon Street itself with St Paul’s not too far in the distance.
This will incorporate 10 new cafes and restaurants, granted as part of Bloomberg’s planning permission for their offices upstairs. The stipulation was that they replicate the retail and restaurant spaces that had previously existed. I persuaded Bloomberg to aim for a space entirely dedicated to hospitality, with crucial input from Richard Coraine, the affable chief development officer for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Also vital was the input from Barnaby Collins, the project’s planning consultant from DP9; from Matthew Lusty from Stanhope, who has supervised the building’s construction; from Kathryn Mallon from Bloomberg, whose influence has proved crucial; and Tracey Pollard of letting agents Bruce Gillingham Pollard. In addition, of course, there has been input from myriad lawyers on both sides of the Atlantic. The line up of restaurants will include branches of Caravan, Vinoteca, Homeslice, Koya, Brigadier (an offshoot of Gymkhana) and Bleecker Burger, many of them venturing into the City for the first time.
My second involvement with a City development, although far more tenuous at this stage, is alongside Sir Stuart Lipton and Peter Rogers of Lipton Rogers while they act on behalf of AXA Insurance in the redevelopment of 22 Bishopsgate, which, when finished in mid 2019, will be a 60-storey tower that will be home to many a new start-up. On its second floor, 22,000 sq ft of hospitality will be open to all those working in the building, and anyone who is not.
It is not difficult to imagine why these building projects have carried on after the Brexit referendum but more puzzling to me is the continued enthusiasm of so many hospitality providers in seeking a site in the City. Or, perhaps the fault actually lies with me and my age, and my long-held pre- and now misconceptions about the area.
Certainly, a great deal has changed in the last 30 years. Perhaps beginning with Sir Terence Conran’s bold move south of Tower Bridge with Le Pont de la Tour, restaurateurs have been changing the gastronomic face of the City. D&D, who took over the Conran restaurants, have pursued this, with the Coq d’Or and then Madison, their rooftop bar that is perhaps the highest-grossing restaurant in the company. Then there has been the redevelopment around Broadgate, One New Change, as well as the tendency of developers to put hospitality on the top floors of their newest developments such as The Shard, the Sky Garden on top of the so-called Walkie Talkie building at 20 Fenchurch Street in the far right of this picture (when seen on the home page), and Duck and Waffle, the restaurant that is open 24/7 on top of Heron Tower.
There has also been the massive increase in tourist numbers, a process initiated by the rebuilding of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, then continued by the successful transformation of Tate Modern and all knit nicely together by the construction of the Millennium Bridge, a proposal that was initially rejected by the City of London, the authority that control the banks of the River Thames on which the bridge is based, on the grounds that not enough pedestrians would use it. Access for so many of these tourists has been facilitated by the expansion, and proximity, of London City Airport. And then more recently the London tourist boom has been fuelled by the slump in the value of the pound.
The City has long had a missing factor – customers at the weekend. The recent opening of The Ned by Soho House with a collection of eating places along its sumptuous ground floor (the building was originally the HQ of the Midland Bank and is named after the nickname of its architect, Sir Edward Lutyens) has drawn huge crowds throughout the week on the back of equally extensive press coverage. But it is the crowds that The Ned has lured at weekends that have been particularly impressive.
So there you have it. A small quartier of London town with an unprecedented history and a huge density of people working long hours in it, most recently the example of the three-way merger between Nabarro and Olswang with CMS Cameron McKenna that will be realised in their numerous hungry and thirsty solicitors now working in Cannon Place. Add in the tourists, lured by the attraction of the public realm and artwork that I know will surround the Bloomberg HQ, and there exists the basis for a thriving seven-day-a-week operation, from early morning to reasonably late at night, a scenario that every restaurateur dreams of.
But if the umbrellas and the bowler hats have gone, then so I believe should the name. Who will think of something more pertinent, more feminine, more 21st century, than the City? This name change is surely now long overdue.