New destination for foodies: Britain. (No kidding.)
LONDON — It used to be a backwater on the European culinary scene, a drab landscape of third-rate restaurants and soggy vegetables. While people visited France, Spain, and Italy for the food, they visited Britain for anything but.
Not any more. London is rapidly evolving into one of the most exciting places in the world to dine, say top chefs and food critics - even the French. And while the English countryside may still lag behind the capital, it's no longer just fish 'n' chips and mushy peas there either.
"We have such a diversity of restaurants in London now - no other city can beat us on variety," says Tom Aikens, a chef at the leading edge of a new culinary elan here.
"The standards of cooking have gone up," he says, as diners in his restaurant sample anchovy beignets, fennel gazpacho, and a pea-themed starter that looks like a Jackson Pollock on the plate. "The food has improved, the produce has got better, the suppliers and growers have improved."
The industry is sitting up and taking notice. One recent authoritative survey of the best places to eat in the world, which polled hundreds of top international chefs, restaurateurs, and food critics, gave Britain no fewer than 14 of the top 50, 11 of them in London. (The No. 1 was the Fat Duck, a venue west of London famed for raucous creations like sardine-flavored sorbet and snail porridge.)
The restaurant market is growing at almost 10 percent a year, according to Ella Johnston, editor of Restaurant magazine, which published the top 50 survey. More than a third of money spent on food in Britain now goes on eating out, she says.
And the food scene's growth is not just measurable in new premises alone. TV schedules are packed with celebrity chefs and cooking shows. The top five bestselling nonfiction manuals in Britain last week were all cookbooks. Chefs are feted as no other category of celebrity apart from popstars and footballers.
There are obvious reasons for the trend. A more prosperous society has more cash to burn on luxuries like fine dining. An immigration boom has expanded the options and demand for ethnic cuisine.
Longer hours at the office, and the rise of dual-income families, have also cut down the time available for cooking. A generation ago, a restaurant was for special occasions. Now it's a regular event.
"Britons are getting more epicurean, embracing celebration as a way to let go of the stress of life, and the restaurant is part of this," says Raymond Blanc, a Frenchman who has been cooking for the British for more than 30 years and is now one of the country's foremost chefs.
"A restaurant is now part of the lifestyle, a part of a city as much as a university or a museum," says Mr. Blanc, whose Maison au Quat' Saisons was ranked 28th in the survey. "People have more disposable income and choose to spend it on food, not in the shopping basket but in the restaurant. They pay a great deal of money to have a special moment in their life."
Blanc is not the only Frenchman cooing about the British scene. At Tom Aikens' eponymous restaurant in Chelsea (eighth in the survey), assistant manager Secou Makiese enthuses about his own choice, ridiculed by friends in France, to come and work in Britain.
"When I came here, people in France said I was stupid," he recalls as he prepares a spectacular plate of French cheeses for degustation. "But for me the service and the presentation is 10 times better here.
"The chefs here like Tom and Gordon Ramsay are doing really great things. For me, France is boring by comparison."
Yet other evidence would suggest that away from the smart venues of the big cities, a large constituency of Britons don't share Mr. Makiese's enthusiasm for quality food. The nation was scandalized recently when it emerged that some schools spent as little as 65 cents per child on lunch. A celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver, exposed the outrage in a television series and, in a rare case of a documentary actually changing government policy, forced ministers to pay out $510 million for improvements.
Elsewhere, rising obesity and the proliferation of fast food would appear to indicate that there are many - probably a majority - who still aren't interested in dining at a restaurant that serves asparagus and chervil mousse.
According to Blanc, it was the postwar culture of intensive farming in Britain that reduced diets here to a limp lowest common denominator. Food security was achieved at the expense of local diversity. Culinary curiosity all but disappeared.
"It's a country ravaged by 60 years of intensive farming; you cannot reverse that quickly," he warns.
The new affluence of the late '80s brought people back into restaurants. At the same time, the deregulation of public houses encouraged chefs to use these venues as a platform for quality, affordable cuisine.
"A lot of young chefs realized that if they took over a pub they could get a cash flow which would enable them to do interesting culinary things," says Jay Raynor, a food critic and author of the novel Eating Crow.
But Raynor cautions about polls that place a quarter of the world's top restaurants in Britain.
"London has a massive concentration of very very good restaurants, but outside of London" you would starve if you tried to find a good meal, he says.
Blanc agrees. Although most of his chefs are now young Britons, he adds: "We've got to be careful not to get too excited. London is an exciting city as good as anywhere else in the world. But 90 percent of the top Michelin and Zagat-rated restaurants are French or French inspired."
"It's too soon to say this is a place where chefs all over the world are going to come. There's a long way to go."