The wonder years


In this version of an article published by the Financial Times to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the FT Weekend, Nick writes about the changes, places, meals and individuals that have made the deepest impression on him over his past 30 years of observing the world’s restaurants.  


Wine by the glass: Once offered merely as red or white, and then considered something only for wimps, wines by the glass are now an essential aspect of a modern menu, and any self-respecting restaurant offers a wide range of them (see Les 110 de Taillevent, Paris, and Vinoteca, London).

Coffee and tea: Single-estate teas, coffee from different countries – even a choice of milks – ensure that hot drinks have seen the biggest single improvement in restaurants. And they are presented at such an impressionable time, just before the bill. Does anyone even want to recall the hot drinks that were served 30 years ago?

The fall of France and the rise of Spain: Who would have believed that Paris would be overshadowed by Barcelona; that Bilbao and San Sebastian would be more exciting restaurant destinations than Lyons or Strasbourg. But these are the facts of restaurant life today.

London v New York restaurant rivalry: As each city has sought to outdo the other, both cities’ restaurateurs have learnt from each other to the ultimate benefit of their customers, moving towards more casual food, professionally delivered.

Lunch for a fiver: In 1993, the FT persuades 150 restaurants to offer two courses for £5 in the world’s first newspaper restaurant promotion, much copied since.

Sommeliers: Or somms, for short, are currently the stars in many US restaurants, such as Laura Maniec at Corkbuzz in New York. But, as they used to say about little girls, when they are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad, they are horrid!

Peru and the rise of ceviche: Thirty years ago no South American country featured on the world’s gastronomic map but marinated raw fish is now super-cool and Peruvian cuisine in general has generated many fascinating dishes and happy customers. Thank you, Gastón Acurio, campaigning chef at Astrid y Gastón in Lima.

Venture capitalists: They once shunned restaurants as investments but now embrace them. This does create, however, a risk of over-rapid expansion.

Restaurant tourism: The biggest single change of all, that food and drink are now such a stimulus to travel.


Union Square Café, New York: Over the past 30 years, Danny Meyer’s first restaurant has been unfailingly consistent.

Alle Testiere, Venice: History; romance; and the pleasures of sitting in a highly intimate restaurant eating the fish that has just been landed.

Roast chicken for two at Zuni Café, San Francisco: Cooked in the brick oven with a warm bread salad, mustard greens and dried currants and a side order of shoestring potatoes. California sunshine not included but usually available.

Breakfast sushi at Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo: This 6 am ritual, after the tuna auction, is a vital part of every visit to Tokyo.

Breakfast at Ballymaloe House, Ireland: The freshest ingredients – butter, moreish bread and homemade jams – memorable art on the walls, and neither the rain nor the sunshine outside lasts too long.

Pierre Koffmann’s pieds de cochon: Hefty, undoubtedly, but also a heartfelt expression of this remarkable chef’s culinary style.

The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent: My favourite restaurant ‘day out’ from London, offering the chance to sit down and enjoy whatever Stephen and Peter Harris have received that day, cooked in the most understated style.

Dim sum at Luk Yu Tea House, Hong Kong: One aspect of life in this city that happily never changes.

The menu at Taillevent, Paris: The design detail may be somewhat different but the format, with the menu on the outside, the wine list on the inside, remains unchanged almost 70 years on. A classic.

Japanese kaiseki menu: In the hands of a wonderful Japanese chef, the challenges imposed by the form of the menu, often with very little room for independent expression, give rise to the purest expression of the chef’s art.

Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, California: On the terrace, excellent food from chef John Cox with a view that is nothing but the Pacific.

Sherry: The world’s greatest aperitif and appetite stimulant – whatever the style – and one that is happily undergoing a renaissance. One sniff of a manzanilla and I am in Sanlucar, southern Spain.


Heston Blumenthal: The Fat Duck and Dinner chef made a unique impression on British food initially by creating dishes that no domestic cook would try to replicate and then by re-engineering old favourites to make them taste even better.

Alain Ducasse: The quintessential French chef, who, by incorporating the best of Italy, has managed to keep French cooking lighter and still valid today.

Chris Corbin and Jeremy King: From Le Caprice in 1981 to an empire today centred on The Wolseley, London’s most stylish restaurateurs.

Neil Perry and Australian influence: The combination of style and enthusiasm coupled with a lack of pretension made the onset of chefs such as Brett Graham at The Ledbury a breath of fresh air.

Alice Waters: Another revolutionary but a far more unlikely one. Softly spoken but with steely determination, Waters has pioneered the principles of organic local food at Chez Panisse, her restaurant in Berkeley, San Francisco, and also stands shoulder to shoulder alongside Carlo Petrini of the Slow Food movement.

Fergus Henderson: The chef responsible for the revival of so much good British food and also for the revival of the word ‘joyful’.

Joël Robuchon: The great French chef who, by merging the delivery style of Spanish tapas with the Japanese layout of the sushi counter, created a new, modern way of eating that has made eating at the counter so fashionable.

Ferran Adrià: At the now-closed El Bulli he was the world’s undisputed culinary genius over the past 30 years, despite the fact that he talks so fast that he is almost impossible to understand whether speaking Catalan, Spanish or French.

René Redzepi: As the price of meat rises, and fish becomes scarcer, it has fallen to this man to show us the bounty that lies under our feet and has been largely ignored.