OPINION - Saving London’s best restaurants starts with you

The wine room in Julie’s  (Lucy Young)
The wine room in Julie’s (Lucy Young)

This has always been true, but bear with me: if you love a restaurant, go to it. There’s a reason for the Instagram posts, the newsletters, the money-off deals and the drinks on the house: places need their regulars. It’s why they fashion their own folklore, giving customers something to share, to pass on. Remember those old Italian places that always had snaps of the owner with his arms around someone who looked a bit like Sly Stallone’s brother? They were telling a story.

Julie’s in Holland Park was a master of this, and had more rumours to mine than most: shenanigans at Kate Moss’ 22nd birthday; anything to do with Mick Jagger and curtained-off table G3, better known as the G-Spot — gossip columns really do write themselves sometimes — and even a royal stag-do way back when. A tale I’ve never quite swallowed is that the dents and dimples on one particular tabletop could be attributed to Tina Turner’s heels, after the rocker supposedly got up and strutted her stuff all over it. I don’t believe a word, but I’ve long admired the restaurant manager who, faced with a piece of knackered furniture, dreamt the story up with a straight face and somehow got away with it.

Stories of this ilk look set to cease, at least from Julie’s, which has finally called it a day after 53 years of feeding the A-list. As they put the place up for sale, owners Timothy and Cathy Herring said in a statement marked by wistfulness: “the time has now come for us to retire and hopefully pass on the baton”. Given Julie’s had a heavily-publicised relaunch in 2019, the sale seems to speak as much of malevolent market forces as the Herring’s desire to ride off into retirement. Perhaps even rock stars are feeling the pinch.

Unnervingly, last week also saw the leviathan D&D London restaurant group announce the closure of Avenue in St James’s and Radici up in Islington. It makes for an inauspicious start to the year, and follows several sad 2022 losses: Chinatown’s Jen Cafe and Joy King Lau, Brixton favourite Salon, Hackney’s Peg. Even the critically-lauded Laughing Heart has ceased its giggling.

The year ahead still has a glut of openings to look forward to — Japanese is this year’s clearest trend — but the numbers offer stark evidence of an industry disfigured by the pandemic, Brexit-aggravated staffing shortages, and the cost of living paradox, whereby prices are forced up yet customer spending is squashed. And while the Chancellor’s energy package is something, there’s more to it than that: the number of hospitality businesses operating now is some 11,500 fewer now than it was in March 2020. They can’t all be down to a dodgy gas bill.

So I’ll end where I began: if you love somewhere, go. Restaurants’ real value isn’t in gossipy tales of Hollywood, but in the way they weave into our lives, they way they play host when we’re making memories. They’re the backdrops to dates, to long nights with old friends. They make it into family folklore. We need these places to last; good storytelling takes time.