John Sturgis

An ode to London’s closed restaurants

An ode to London's closed restaurants
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Leg of lamb à la ficelle: 'First, inherit an ancient stone farmhouse lost somewhere in the hills of the Luberon, then string up a leg of young lamb over a smoky wood fire...'

As I chuckled over this sardonic intro to a recipe in one of my favourite cookery books of recent years, Sardine by Alex Jackson, my laughter quickly died as I realised that not only will I never inherit such a farmhouse — but I’ll also never again go to the restaurant that launched the book.

Sardine was one of my best-loved London restaurants of the last decade, tucked away in an unlikely and not especially salubrious corner behind a drive-thru McDonald’s in the unfashionable hinterland between Old Street and Angel.

But the cooking was sensational: southern French and Basque stuff done with consistent flare at not, for London, especially high prices, with a great wine list. Yet it closed for good last June, Jackson himself snapped up by Noble Rot to run their revamp of the old Gay Hussar site in Greek Street, like the star player in a relegated football team getting a new deal to stay in the Premier League

Image: Terroir, Charing Cross

In spite of one of the most strange, ill-judged and costly episodes of the entire pandemic saga, Eat Out To Help Out, tens of thousands of restaurants, pubs, cafes, bars and food shacks have gone bust in the last year and a half; many more are still in deep trouble. One recent study found just shy of 10 per cent of them didn’t reopen up after the end of this spring's lockdown.

Amid such carnage, we will all have our personal lamented losses. These are mine. (And apologies if this is London-centric — but so am I.)

In a similar vein to Sardine, but more pan-France than solely southern, was Terroirs in Charing Cross. It had been quietly but steadily excellent for 13 years — as well as having been among the first to push the, for me, somewhat oversold, fashion for ‘natural wines’. But the food was the thing. I went many times and never regretted it. Terroirs closed permanently in June.

Also on a French note, a late rebrand couldn’t save the Alsace-themed Bellanger brasserie on Islington Green — with its pleasing menu of tartes flambées and Coq au Riesling — from disappearing out of the Corbin and King empire.

Less traditional but still with a French beating heart was The Frog in Hoxton, Adam Handling’s punkier-styled take on bistro cuisine that for me always worked; now no more.

One of the institutions of Chinatown — and a perennial favourite for us — Hung’s on Wardour Street, renowned for roast duck and raw service has also gone.

A newer Chinese that I thought would absolutely fly was Kym’s. This was opened in Bloomberg Arcade by the astonishingly inventive Andrew Wong just three years ago to capitalise on the reputation of his eponymous A Wong in Victoria. But a stellar chef wasn’t enough to counterbalance the empty offices in the City — and it closed in September.

A favourite Japanese that shut was the always previously buzzy Jitori, a yakitori grill in the heart of the golden quarter mile of restaurants on Kingsland Road in Dalston.

At one point a decade or so ago Mark Hix looked like he was taking over town, building an empire from Clerkenwell to the West End, but I guess he overreached himself — and now is no more. A small legacy from those years will be the inspired ‘Spitfires Over Kent’ sloe gin cocktails we picked up at Hix Soho. They’ve become part of our home mixing cabinet repertoire forever.

I had followed the career of Selin Kiazim since the days ten years ago when she was doing pop-ups in places like Dalston — and absolutely loved her second incarnation of the eastern Mediterranean homage Oklava in Fitzrovia but I’m guessing the site was too far from much else, marooned in evening dead office space north of Charlotte Street.

And some long-time neighbourhood institutions went too.  Harry Morgans, a Jewish deli in St Johns Wood that had been open since 1945 — when ‘New York style’ would have been less ubiquitous. We had breakfast there last summer. Everyone was craning to see Peter Crouch and Abbey Clancy, a celebrity couple who had come in for bagels. The place was plainly starry, the food was hearty — but the coffee was terrible. Not a good long-term sign.

Similarly, F. Cooke, a pie and mash place that had been going since 1900 finally succumbed to the gentrification of London Fields last January: hipsters don’t eat jellied eels. I confess I hadn’t in some time either so I shoulder my share of the blame.

Then there was one of the capital’s most recognisable greasy spoons, The Shepherdess Café, just a couple of blocks from Sardine on City Road, which had been going for 37 years when it folded last July.

And these are just the ones I knew. There were also places I meant to get to but never did — and now never will. South London friends had raved about The Dairy in Clapham — but it was always just that bit too far. Perennial appearances on our places-to-try list were made by The Ledbury, The Caprice and Langhan’s Brasserie — but they were always that bit too much, more than a bit too much.

Now I can’t help regretting that we didn’t venture further or spend more. Or pushed to have gone on those delightful occasions when someone else was paying.

All of this left me feeling pretty gloomy — but a chat with the patron of another old favourite, Oisín Rogers from Mayfair’s Guinea Grill, countered this.

Rogers has long published a list of his London tips which reads: Zedel, Bentley's, Kiln, Brat, Chez Bruce, Quality Chop House, Ciao Bella, The French House, St John, Otto's, Darby's, Dumpling Legend, Smoking Goat, Noble Rot, Rochelle Canteen, Jinlee, A Wong, Spice Village, Bellamy's, Oslo Court. They all seem to have survived, praise be.

He told me: 'Of course there are problems like staffing and footfall and if you get the accountants making the decisions you’re in trouble — but the best restaurants, the ones that offer good food and comfort, will always be in demand. There’s no crisis here. Just good times ahead.'

I do hope he’s right.