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Jimi Famurewa: Raise a glass to the class of 2023 (and a few we didn't love)

 (Press handout)
(Press handout)

It’s pretty uncanny. This time last year, the new place that London’s dyspeptic food-obsessives were all scrabbling to get into was Bouchon Racine — a long-awaited, semi-mythical pub dining room founded by a supergroup of popular hospitality veterans (chef Henry Harris, GM Dave Strauss) and oriented around extraordinarily vivid, unashamedly old-fashioned cooking. This year, the spot causing unseemly scrums and pleading table request WhatsApps is The Devonshire — a long-awaited, semi-mythical pub dining room founded by a supergroup of popular hospitality veterans (landlord Oisin Rogers, restaurateur Charlie Carroll, chef Ashley Palmer Watts) and… well, you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

It feels, in the context of the past 12 months in London dining, like an apposite piece of bookending. Or, if you were being less kind, industry acid reflux. Because for all that the city’s restaurant landscape in 2023 was coloured by significant, painful losses — the announced closures of Le Gavroche and The India Club; the deep wound of Polpo founder Russell Norman’s untimely death — it has also felt like a year defined by nostalgia, repetition and the collective embrace of a kind of lulling, uncomplicated familiarity. Sequels, spin-offs and empire-expansion projects from anointed international chefs have reigned supreme. There has been no Big Mamma-style, ambitious new player arriving to upend the market. Roast chicken, steak, smashburgers and escargot-heavy Francophillia have been the most recurrent culinary motifs. In an era where the eye-widening expensiveness of eating out has, perhaps outside the richest bubbles, turned it into a rarer treat, it makes sense that restaurant owners and diners alike would retreat towards the reliable, road-tested and risk-free; towards cones of frites, caviar supplements and establishments all pitched as “love letters” to the same bygone ages that are always being revived.

Naturally, this shift has occasioned some forgettable new restaurants and a few lightly traumatising meals. But, as proven by The Devonshire (and I am going to have to ask you all to kindly stop going now, so I can get a pint a little bit quicker), it has also given us some truly remarkable openings that have either built upon or subverted and challenged this prevailing mood by daring to give us something new. Or, perhaps, managed to balance familiarity with a freshness of perspective.

Langoustines at the Devonshire (Clare Menary)
Langoustines at the Devonshire (Clare Menary)

That was very much the case with Akub (W8, akub-restaurant.com): Franco-Palestinian chef and restaurateur Fadi Kattan’s celebration and reclamation of Palestine’s rich food culture. That mission has renewed, bittersweet significance following the horrors of the past two months. My prime memories of a January meal there are of crunchy parcels of lamb masaf, the ripping heat of green shatta condiment, and recognisable Middle Eastern flavours reframed with a purposeful jolt.

From another angle, it was another example of W8’s continued gastronomic renaissance and, I suppose, there were other dining neighbourhoods that had an especially strong 12 months. Both Saltine (N5, saltine.co.uk) — four words: sticky toffee apple cake — and Kiwi-Italian chef Dara Klein’s gutsy, Puglian pub residency Tiella (N1, comptonarms.co.uk), gave Highbury a bit of vigour. Yet it was Borough Market — hardly a dining backwater, I know — that emerged as a cradle of particularly impressive, helpfully wallet-friendly openings. Cynthia Shanmugalingam’s Rambutan (SE1, rambutanlondon.com) illuminated spring with luscious, fragrant Sri Lankan curries and short eats; Kolae (SE1, kolae.com) saw the Som Saa team outdo themselves (and create what is probably my new restaurant of the year) with a screaming riot of infernal, Southern Thai small plates and nutty, abominably desirable curry glazed skewers; and then the Akoko team’s Akara (SE1, akaralondon.co.uk) swept in to put some of their proven craft and utterly Michelin star-worthy flavour dynamism into a vibey, mildly more relaxed environment.

The dining room in Chishuru (Press handout)
The dining room in Chishuru (Press handout)

That last one is another example of contemporary West African cuisine’s steady march towards the centre of things. Terrible news for Nigerian humility, obviously (I speak from experience). But excellent news for the palates and bellies of Londoners, as exemplified by the all-new Chishuru (W1W, chishuru.com): a gorgeously put together, throbbingly warm and hospitable West End pleasure palace that gives Adejoké Bakare’s scintillating, one-of-a-kind cooking the home and the platform it deserves.

Hospitality groups sharpening or expanding their offering after a move to new digs was another positive running theme. Evi’s (SE22, evisrestaurant.com) in East Dulwich saw the road-hardened team behind street food brand Souvlaki Street turn what could have been a mere shift to bricks-and-mortar into something far more exciting: a kind of small but perfectly formed neo-taverna that executed a recognisable repertoire — politiki salad, tzatziki, bronzed fists of courgette fritter — with an urgent snap of homestyle freshness.

Yes, Lasdun (SE1, lasdunrestaurant.com) — from the creators of The Marksman — essentially transposed the Hackney pub’s sensibility (and peerless beef and barley buns) to the National Theatre. But there also seemed to be something about the starkly glamorous, brutalist interiors that gave the cooking and atmosphere an added thrust and clarity. And then there is Mountain (W1F, mountainbeakstreet.com). Tomos Parry’s white-hot, high summer opening seemed for a long time like it would be Brat 3 in all but name. But this distinct, blockbuster follow-up took the Anglesey-born chef’s Basque-accented approach to rugged new places, gave Soho a different, understated sort of scene restaurant, and somehow turned a bulging spider crab omelette into one of the year’s foremost Instagram status symbols.

I still can’t quite believe the technically dazzling, utterly boring meal I had at Mauro Colagreco in the OWO somehow cost almost £300 a head

If that represented the soaring apex of how good things could be then there were regular crushing reminders of just how bad they could get. Notting Hill’s Empire Empire (W11, empire-empire.restaurant) promised exuberant, disco-adjacent Indian and instead proffered a perplexing square dance of knackered pakoras, dismal seekh kebabs and bang average curries; Bromley’s Dorothy & Marshall (BR1, dorothyandmarshall.co.uk) had put so much energy into its grand, converted courthouse interior and natty, personalised server jackets that it seemed to forget that the food (disintegrating burgers, beslimed “winter salads”, truffle chips reinvented as a kind of nerve warfare) was seriously lacking; Ken’s (EC1R, quitegood.uk) in Exmouth Market, where it was mostly staff decanting crisps onto plates and pan con tomate mystifyingly presented on what appeared to be discarded toast crusts, felt like the nadir of that loosey-goosey wine bar style where many of the challenging, worthwhile bits of creating a restaurant have been designed out of the experience. Oh, and I waited a very long time amid the queuing TikTok hordes at Supernova (W1F, supernovaburger.com) for a decent, McDonald’s-ish smashburger, criminally oversalted fries and a rubbish sundae.

I suppose, to return to that idea of price-creep and a resultant aversion to risk, this year perhaps brought a sharper appreciation of value. Even those, like David Ellis, who raved about the grown-up, sexy classicism of 64 Goodge Street (W1T, 64goodgestreet.co.uk) — justifiably, I imagine, though it’s a glaring omission among my visits this year — winced at the expense.

Brutto, famed for its £5 Negronis (Paul Winch-Furness / Photograp)
Brutto, famed for its £5 Negronis (Paul Winch-Furness / Photograp)

Star-garlanded Argentinean chef Mauro Colagreco (SW1A, raffles.com/london) opened his eponymous flagship at Raffles London at The OWO and I still can’t quite believe the technically dazzling, utterly boring meal I had there somehow cost almost £300 a head. I think what we have all been looking for across 2023 is something that hits that sweet spot between soul, surprise and justifiable outlay. It is there at The Devonshire (W1D, devonshiresoho.co.uk), where a recently introduced £29 set menu offers a counterpoint to the blow-out, platinum card-slinging experience that the majority of its boisterous, Guinness necking clientele are availing themselves of. And it is, of course, there in Brutto’s famed £5 Negroni: one of Norman’s last single acts of deft, pure restaurant making genius and further proof that, when it came to hospitality, he had an uncanny ability to see around corners; to soothe and to shock all at once.

Let’s hope that, though he will not be with us in 2024, London’s other restaurateurs carry that skill and that impulse forward. Tradition dictates that I will be talking to you about another pub dining room this time next year. My only wish is that tradition is chased by a shot of novelty, and that the comfort blanket of the familiar is backed by the necessary thrill of the unexpected.