Food:Live – RCA ‘On Tour’ Casual Dining Trends
Another trip and another hard day for the On Tour team. This time the crew were on board for Food:Live, a one day culinary ‘exploratorium’ of London’s latest food and drink offerings.
A study tour takes serious planning. An extensive list of possibilities was edited with some difficult days of testing and selection. Our team would be snaking their way from the BHA offices on High Holborn through tourist-friendly Covent Garden and into vibrant Soho.
The day was designed to focus on three trends: smaller plates, simpler menus and beautiful presentation. These are the themes of today that both restaurants and customers love. The results, as seen in the busy places visited, speak for themselves.
The Hoxton, Holborn
Our day started at achingly cool hotel The Hoxton, where three of our first stops were located. The Holborn Grind, a bare-walled, all-day/late-night espresso and cocktail bar sneakily attached to the hotel.
Then Hubbard & Bell, the hotel’s restaurant and a cool place to hangout, whether you’re a guest or not.
The third stop was Chicken Shop, closed, but it didn’t matter; all we needed to see was the menu on the window. Chicken: whole, half or quarter. The Soho House Group is on to a winner with what is essentially posh Nando’s.
Take-out: These wholly ‘owned’ sub-brands are all positioned as independents. The days of the ‘Hotel Restaurant’ are long gone.
To Covent Garden
A short walk to Covent Garden for our next two targets: Kastner & Ovens behind The Royal Opera House and Peyton and Byrne, from Oliver Peyton. It’s presentation, presentation, presentation! These little shops are a masterclass in how to sell a quick lunch. Sandwiches, salads and cakes that go by the maxim ‘when they’re gone, they’re gone’ and trust us, they do go. Both shops, especially Kastner & Ovens, have an almost cult-like status with those of us who often eat ‘al-desko’.
Take-out: Think big bowls, wooden spoons, pile it high and sell it not so cheap! Everything fresh, homemade and selling out daily.
New entry: Shake Shack
Over to Covent Garden Market to that most American of American imports, Shake Shack. These guys do shakes, burgers and hot dogs, and considering they are on probably the busiest site in terms of customer footfall, they do it well. Customers are herded through a strangely efficient queuing system and out with their food (or bleeper) in next to no time.
Take-out: Queues annoy people, manage a crowd well to keep them coming back.
Battersea Pie Station
Shake Shack’s simple menu and great location are eclipsed, in our eyes, by a hidden gem nestled downstairs on the lower ground floor. Battersea Pie Station was a runaway success for the On Tour team: honest, simple pies served with mash and gravy. Easy as pie and easily adoptable race-day fare. With a simple menu and clever presentation in little brown boxes, Battersea Pie Station is definitely worth a detour.
Tasty, simple, honest presentation…
Take-out: Simple menus, honest pricing and efficient ordering keep customers happy.
Timberyard and The Department of Coffee and Social Affairs
Off for a quick caffeine fix at two of London’s coolest coffee shops. The coffee-shop-come-work-space that is Timberyard might be a bit too cool for its own good. The brilliant idea of bookable workspaces and meeting tables is spoiled by the slow service. Cronuts (donut meets croissant), however, remedied any frustration. For presentation, The Department of Coffee and Social Affairs is the real showstopper. Sandwiches wrapped in brown paper, cakes and treats piled high on the open counter look fantastic. The ‘curated’ coffee selection is impressive and reassuringly stylish.
Take-out: For a concept to work it has to work well all the time. Long queues bring this otherwise brilliant concept down. Even small mistakes are unforgivable.
Ape & Bird
On to Polpo’s (founders of Spuntino, Polpo and Polpetto) latest incarnation, gastropub Ape & Bird, for our first (soft) drink of the day. Russell Norman has succeeded again with impeccable small plates of cichèti and a refreshing Cynar Spritz. Remember: these small plates are easy to produce, reassuringly expensive and easily make an otherwise dull plate look elegant.
Take-out: The Polpo formula in all of its incarnations never fails.
Burger & Lobster
Lunch was at the temple of the small menu, Burger & Lobster. They don’t actually have a menu just a friendly waiter who announces your options – Burger or Lobster (whole-grilled or in a roll). Big items, small menu, friendly staff, fast service, fair pricing. The formula is a smash hit and has, for good reason, been reproduced successfully across the board (think Chicken Shop, Duck & Waffle and Tramshed).
Keep it real folks
Note the popularity of the short menu with overseas visitors. Burger & Lobster is a favourite with London’s Chinese tourists
Take-out: Too much choice is often a bad thing.
On to Muriel’s Kitchen, with its country chic interior. Good coffee, good food, pretty interiors, a formula that can be easily repeated at venues across the land. Big menu, big portions and all the favourites, Muriel’s doesn’t try too hard, delivers on its promises – and look at that carrot cake (£5 a slice).
A massive slice and two forks for a massive £5!
Take-out: You don’t have to try too hard to fulfil the most basic of cravings.
On to Bunny Chow, a truly one-trick pony but a clever trick nonetheless. Take a loaf of bread, hollow out the middle and fill with anything from a Full English to a spicy vegetarian curry. Like a lot of London’s recent restaurant openings, they began life as street food vendors and have only slightly elaborated on their single choice offering. People love this because they can talk about it, in the same way they can talk about wood fired pizza from the back of a van (Pizza Pilgrims) and Taiwanese pork buns (Bao).
Take-out: Simple, fun, tasty, handheld and a talking point.
Death by chocolate: SAID Dal 1923
Next stop, SAID Dal 1923 and Pure. SAID Dal 1923 is a Rome-based chocolatier which specialises in ‘blow your socks off’ presentation; with chocolate bars, chocolate cake, liquid chocolate and hot chocolate on a big antique wooden counter all there for you to salivate over.
SAID Dal 1923: Chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate
Take-out: There are a hundred different ways to make an otherwise run of the mill product stand out.
Pure, Made For You
On to Pure at the other end of the spectrum, no chocolate and more leaves than a rabbit could eat but boy they are fast. A fast food style counter with a healthy twist. These guys get you in and out fast and we mean McDonald’s fast.
Take-out: There is no harm in using a proven method on a new concept.
Our penultimate stop was Señor Ceviche in the beautiful Kingly Court; tucked away behind Carnaby Street. Kingly Court is a food destination in itself but Señor Ceviche is the up and coming star of the show. Mixing Peruvian style barbecue and ceviche and some seriously impressive Pisco Sours, this colourful establishment ticks all of the boxes – it presents itself well, has a simple menu and serves small sharing plates. Even through the Pisco-haze there was a lot to learn.
Totally over the top…
Take-out: If you are going to go international, embrace it completely.
Morada, a feast for the eyes
Last stop was Morada, Brindisa Asador. This new Asador (bbq restaurant) from tapas kings, Brindisa, was the most elegant stop on the tour. Simple and delicious tapas and grilled meats served by knowledgable staff surrounding a fantastic open kitchen. Presentation at its best, a simple menu of small delicious plates, there was no better way to finish off the day. The Spanish have always been the experts on casual dining – tapas, enough said.
Take-out: Tapas are the original small plate wonder. How can you adapt and adopt this to your venues?
With 17 venues visited, the day was long but enjoyable and the conversation expansive. There were some great learning points to be taken back to racecourses, either as reassurance of what we’re doing right or as inspiration for new offerings.
Our most important thing to take-out, however, is the reminder to keep a constant eye out for what’s going on because as we have said before – if you aren’t looking you can’t be learning.
Next, the On Tour Team do London’s best bars…