London restaurants are booming to the extent they are now the equal of West End theatres as a tourist attraction, according to one of the capital’s best chefs.
Michelin-starred Jason Atherton, 43, whose restaurants include Pollen Street Social and Berners Tavern, said diners “have never had it so good” in terms of the quality and variety of food on offer.
He said there were a number of young chefs worthy of the accolade of three Michelin stars and claimed prices were “60 per cent cheaper” than Paris for the same quality of food.
“The power of food and beverage to the traveller today is so significant that people plan their trips around what restaurants they are going to go to,” he told me.
“It’s just incredible. If you cast your memory back 20 years ago, your night out would consist of bars, and you’d probably have eaten at home. Absolutely now the first meeting point is the restaurant. The other stuff comes much later on in the evening. Or you go to places like Zuma where they’ve provide everything – the cocktails, the bars, the whole thing. London’s restaurants are a massive draw.”
Atherton is to cook a six-course tasting menu showcasing British produce for the winner of a VisitLondon.com competition offering the ultimate tourist experience of the capital.
He hopes to take the winner on a “whistle-stop gastronomic tour of London”, visiting Borough market, Monmouth coffee, Neal’s Yard and La Fromagerie cheese shop.
He said the fear that restaurant trade declined in the summer was now an “old wives’ tale”. He said: “The amount of people coming through Heathrow and spending two or three days in London is so massive now that you can fill your restaurant 52 weeks a year if you are smart.”
London has only two Michelin three-star restaurants – Restaurant Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester – but Atherton said the number could soon increase.
“I think there are a lot of young chefs in the mix now – Claude Bosi [at Hibiscus], Brett Graham [at The Ledbury], Phil Howard at The Square. Le Gavroche deserves to go back up to three [stars]. You have so many great restaurants that are hovering around the two-star mark.”
He added: “Chefs and restaurateurs will never give up opening new restaurants because we have always got a new idea. I think that is super-exciting. Pollen Street is now four years old. I’m shutting it down next August for three weeks. Everyone thinks I’m crazy because I have only just paid it off. I’m spending £1 million to relaunch it. There are a few really important changes I think we need to make. I’m just making sure the restaurant is relevant to the way London is moving.
“There are only two cities in the world that have the diversity and the depth in numbers – London and New York. Japan has more three-star Michelin restaurants but it’s all Japanese food, and a bit of French. If you go to New York you can get great Korean food, great Japanese food, great fusion food, great Jewish food. It’s exactly the same in London. It’s all here – whatever you want.
“London is cheap. There is no way of communicating this, but if you put at the side [of the bill] what it cost to make that dish, I think you would be shocked. We have got sea bass on the menu at £32. I pay £11 a portion just to buy it raw. Then I have got to make the sauce, pay the chef, the rent, someone to collect the coats… It goes on and on.
“What we have become really good at in the last decade is that mide-market that we were really bad 20 years ago – the rise of Polpo, Arbutus, Bubble Dogs, where they do that really fine bistro cooking.
“Even ourselves, at Little Social, you can have a three-course lunch for £19.50. You can’t eat in Paris or Japan for £19.50 – you wouldn’t even get a bus ticket. I think in London, we’ve never had it so good just now.”