Evolution of the London Bistro

by  Nicole Fisher | May 11, 2011
Dinner by Hester at the Mandarin Oriental
Dinner by Hester at the Mandarin Oriental / Photo courtesy of the property

While the concept of casual destination restaurants isn’t new in the British capital (Terence Conran, the Galvin brothers, and Mark Hix, to name a few, have been pursuing it for years), a spate of recent debuts is signaling a sea change in the city’s dining scene. Increasingly, top London chefs are trimming the foams and fancy emulsions from their menus and instead serving uncomplicated but still delicious fare – often with a Provençal influence – at prices that won’t cause indigestion.

This bistro boom was undoubtedly spurred by the recession; London, which normally sizzles with financial wheeling and dealing, sustained a heavy blow. When the party ended with a deafening bang, restaurateurs began to adapt. Yet even now as the economy begins to pick up, starched tablecloths aren’t exactly making a grand comeback.

Will Smith and Anthony Demetre, the former owners of Putney Bridge – a serious eatery that was appreciated by only a relative few with deep pockets – are often credited with igniting this current influx of high-meets-low dining spots. “When I’m not working, I want to eat out with my wife, and relax and wear blue jeans,” says Smith, who last October opened Les Deux Salons (www.lesdeuxsalons.co.uk), a chic, lower-priced bistro across the street from Charing Cross Station. “A few years back, my partner Anthony and I asked ourselves whether we’d like to go to Putney Bridge on our day off. Not really. We wanted to go somewhere fun.”  Since that revelation in 2006, the duo has been opening more relaxed restaurants, from the Michelin-starred Arbutus in Soho to Wild Honey in Mayfair.

At their French-influenced Les Deux Salons in Covent Garden, with its stylish mosaic tile flooring and oversize globe lights, the three-course pretheater menu is a steal at $25.“You can’t even get that at Pizza Hut,” jokes Smith. The wine list offers 40 selections (versus Putney Bridge’s astounding 400), with prices dipping as low as $20 a bottle. Vino is also sold by the wallet-friendly carafe.

While Smith and Demetre may have been at the vanguard, they’re now in good company. Few restaurants have generated as much buzz as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (www.dinnerbyheston.com), a brasserie-style eatery that opened at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in late January. Blumenthal made his name at the Fat Duck in Bray, in Berkshire, which offers a dining experience as rarefied as they come. While the mad genius’ creativity is present at the new venue, Fat Duck’s astronomical prices are not.

At Dinner, historic British recipes – some from the 16th century – inspire the dishes, which include scallops with cucumber ketchup and peas, mackerel smoked over burning hay, and the so-called meat fruit, a chicken liver and foie gras parfait coated with mandarin gelée.

Blumenthal’s venture follows on the heels of Daniel Boulud’s Bar Boulud (www.mandarinoriental.com/london/dining/bar_boulud), also located at the Mandarin Oriental. For his first UK restaurant, which opened last May, the eminent Boulud chose to replicate his unfussy New York bistro of the same name, which traffics in burgers and charcuterie (as opposed to the superformal Daniel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side).

Meanwhile, the Zetter Hotel in cool Clerkenwell has its own famous chef in residence. Bruno Loubet cooked his way through several important restaurants (La Tante Claire, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons) in the ’90s before decamping to Australia for eight years. After returning, Loubet launched the Frenchified Bistrot Bruno Loubet (www.bistrotbrunoloubet.com) in early 2010. A tasty three-course dinner there comes to about $48 per person (about $70 with wine). “People like to go out more often and spend less money than in the past. It doesn’t need to be all foie gras and truffles,” says Loubet. “You can serve excellent food, even if it’s simple, by focusing on the key ingredients and taking out the expensive trimmings.”

Around the same time, much was made of the return of chef Pierre Koffmann to London’s dining scene (during the ’90s his multi-Michelin-starred La Tante Claire was the place to eat). He inched a toe out of retirement with an übersuccessful pop-up restaurant at Selfridges in the autumn of 2009 and then made a full comeback with his swank bistro-style Koffmann’s (www.the-berkeley.co.uk), which opened at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge last August. While some menu items recall La Tante Claire (pig trotters, pistachio soufflé), the prices are gentler and the atmosphere is more laid-back.

Add to that the November debut of the smart yet friendly Cassis (www.cassisbistro.co.uk), also in Knightsbridge, headed by chef David Escobar, who hails from the three-Michelin-starred Maison Lameloise in Chagny, France. Adorned with wide-planked oak floors, white marble slab tables, a zinc bar, and Julian Opie and Gary Hume artwork on the walls, Cassis is as swank as its Brompton Road clientele. Yet the atmosphere is nonintimidating. The bistro is open from noon to 11pm, and serves afternoon tea, weekend brunch, and small, shareable dishes called petites bouchées. “The idea is to break up the traditional three-course lunch, which, with wine, can kill you off if you have to return to work,” explains the chatty general manager, Jean-Marie Miorada.

Although the new cuisine of Escobar, Blumenthal, Koffmann, and the rest could never be called basic, there’s a sense of returning to the essentials of a restaurant experience – quality fare in a congenial setting at an attainable price. And the fad isn’t abating: This month, Marcus Wareing’s protégé Chantelle Nicholson debuts a 160-seat casual brasserie called The Gilbert Scott (www.thegilbertscott.co.uk) in the new St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. (Apparently the trend of installing hot chefs in hotel restaurants isn’t ebbing either.) Chef Isaac McHale, who used to work at two-Michelin-starred The Ledbury in Notting Hill (as well as Copenhagen’s Noma), is also opening his own joint in March called Elliot’s Borough Market (www.elliotsboroughmarket.com). Here a staff in Paul Smith-designed uniforms will serve accessibly priced, inventive cuisine.

Ultimately these chefs are doing what they love, only more simply. “We’re putting our soul and a half into these places,” says Loubet. “You’re not paying for the chandeliers. You’re paying for a piece of the chef.”

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