Where to eat in London now: Restaurants where 'chain' isn't a dirty word
As demand outstrips capacity, many of the new outfits are expanding beyond the British capital and, in one case, even to North America
Edgy down to the double entendre, Meatliquor is the kind of London hotspot where a queue out the door is a near-permanent fixture. The restaurant sits underneath a parking structure north of London's busy Oxford Street. Inside, hipsters in skinny jeans perch side by side with suits in Zegna loafers, surrounded by loud trash polka-style murals and louder music.
When the restaurant opened in 2011, you could scarcely imagine a more fitting bricks-and-mortar home for the legendary Meatwagon food truck. At least, not until Meatailer Ltd. launched a second location, then a third.
The brand now serves its famously sloppy griddled burgers (bathed in melted cheese, enclosed by squishy buns from a local village bakery,) at seven London restaurants, plus locations in Brighton, Bristol and Leeds.
Meatailer co-founder Scott Collins says that his goal was never to build an empire. "We are obviously very proud … but the truth is it's been less of a calculated plan and more of an organic evolution."
Still, the brand's expansion mirrors the rise of the restaurant microchain in London. Since 2010, a growing wave of trendy dining concepts has washed across the capital and spilled beyond its borders.
Bombay-style small plates cafe Dishoom grew from a single location in Covent Garden in 2010, to four throughout London, plus one in Edinburgh.
Bone Daddies, a ramen bar conceived by ex-Nobu chef Ross Shonhan, started in Soho in 2012; it now serves noodles with a side of classic rock at five spots dotted around the capital.
And then there's Polpo: Russell Norman's collection of Venetian bacari numbers six in London, with locations in Brighton and Bristol.
This kind of growth doesn't happen overnight – at least, not at first. Consider Hawksmoor, a steakhouse known for its masterful treatment of grass-fed British beef. Despite early success after opening in 2006, co-founders Will Beckett and Huw Gott didn't attempt a second location until 2010.
"We spent the first four years," Beckett says, "learning how to run one great restaurant, and at the end of that we realized that we had significantly more demand than space to accommodate it."
Five more Hawksmoor locations followed in London, plus one in Manchester. Next year, they're opening in New York.
Jay Rayner, the food critic, author and MasterChef judge, calls Hawksmoor's stateside turn, "The ballsiest move by any British restaurant. But if anyone can do it …" he says, trailing off.
"I'm a very big fan of Hawksmoor," Rayner adds, pointing to the brand as one of the few to succeed in giving the steakhouse a British accent.
So how will that translate in the United States? Beckett says his new outpost in the World Trade Center will focus on North American ingredients – a localization of one of the brand's core values, to put provenance first.
But not all London restaurant groups translate overseas. Meatliquor opened in Singapore in 2015 and closed after little more than a year.
Angelica Malin, editor-in-chief of About Time magazine, points to one reason why microchains thrive in their British context.
"Chains are, I think, dead to us," Malin says. "A restaurant needs to feel independent and, to an extent, local, even when it's part of a big group." Microchains do "local" very well: Differences are built into every new location, often with a nod to its particular neighbourhood or city.
"We didn't and don't ever want Bone Daddies to fall into the 'chain' category of restaurants," says Shonhan. To keep each of his ramen bars distinct, Shonhan brought in location-specific offerings. "Old Street offers kushiyaki [bread-crumbed, fried skewers], Kensington has gyoza and buns and at St. Christopher's Place we've introduced a robata grill."
Another tick in the local column: Supporting British suppliers and producers. Take Hawksmoor's dedication to small-farm beef, for example, or Meatliquor's engagement with up-and-coming craft brewers such as Magic Rock Brewing and Moor Beer. These are British brands supporting British enterprise; it's good marketing on top of good business.
As a general rule, microchain offerings tend to be simple – that's what makes the business model so easy to grow. They also offer good value. Rayner says that these restaurants, at the mid-to-low end of the scale, are essentially a step up from the street-food culture that's made eating out so accessible in recent years.
"Rents in this city are appalling," Rayner says. "So if you're a twentysomething on your first or second job, expendable income is very, very tough."
Malin agrees, but notes that high property costs actually encourage young diners to spend more on food and drink. "The concept of saving has gone out of the window and people are more than happy to lay down 50 quid on a champagne brunch on the weekend, a huge meal out with friends or fancy cocktails in Soho."
Ironically, as microchains move into neighbourhoods outside of central London, properties on the city's fringes become more valuable – and more expensive.
But property costs affect restaurateurs as much as they do Londoners. New openings often require investors, who want to feel confident that they'll see a return.
As Richard Vines, chief food critic at Bloomberg, explains it, "When people with capital are putting money into projects, they want them to be scalable."
That's how venture capitalists became a driving force behind London's food scene. If you look back on the growth of London's microchains over the past decade, you'll notice a pattern of testing and scaling that's straight out of the startup playbook.
First, there's the alpha test. That might be a street-food presence, such as the Meatwagon, or a limited-time event, such as Shackfuyu, a popup izakaya put on by the Bone Daddies team. (The latter was so popular, it became a permanent fixture on Old Compton Street.)
According to Rayner, backers in London are on the prowl for successful concepts in this early phase. "Venture capitalists are wandering all over town looking for as fully-formed proposition as they can find to invest in and roll out," he says. In this sense, a street-food collective like London's Street Feast might be the food-industry equivalent of an incubator.
Next comes the first restaurant opening. In the startup world, that would be the beta test. Says Vines, "[It's] almost like a pilot for a TV show. They're trying out if it works, then they open more."
And more is the goal – it has to be. Rayner explains, "The economies of scale in London, and the rents, are such that to actually survive as a business on one restaurant can be very, very tough."
When a concept is successful – that is, making profits and facing a demand they can no longer meet – it's time to scale up. And that's the part that's so difficult to get right.
"[Russell Norman], who's the face of Polpo, said you've got to get up to 20 outlets before you can … get a good price for it," Vines says.
But the more restaurants a group owns, the more careful the brand must be with its quality control. Expansion also comes with risks to a restaurant's reputation, especially among the core dining scene.
"Once you go for scale, you have to accept that you're becoming a popular restaurant," says Vines. "It's not niche any more."
Malin agrees. "I think there is a breaking point, after a certain number of openings. If there were 10 Dishooms in London, it wouldn't be so exciting."
But Rayner cautions not to judge a microchain by size alone. "There is nothing inherently wrong with a group of restaurants," he says. "There's nothing wrong in that whatsoever. The issue is, simply: are they any good?"