What do you do when you’re not cool anymore? No self respecting foodie scenester would be seen dead in them now they’re rolled out and servicing the suburbs and featuring on everyone’s Facebook feed for your slightly provincial friends’ girls night out, but these neo-chains were all once the place to be seen, supercool indie startups basically giving birth to the London foodie twitter and instagram food trend with their sharp, niche offerings which offered quality and style in a sea of either Strada or Jaimie’s Italian.
Fundamentally, these guys have made it because their product was, and remains, good. But this post isn’t about how good they are, that would be boring. It’s about how cool they are, now that they’ve grown paunches since the investors have waded in. And coolness is all that really matters, right?
The chain that’s slowly but surely replacing the great Aberdeen Angus and more recently Gaucho as the London generic steakhouse of choice, Hawksmoor. Handy at tapping into a bit of Victorian aesthetic nostalgia for good measure, Hawksmoor has built itself into a perfectly acceptable choice for everything from a stag night to a city boys birthday party.
The irony here of course is that Nicholas Hawksmoor was famously vegetarian.*
Shop count: 6
New kids on the block: I think there will always be a market for pretending to be in a sort of European Peter Luger, but as the pastiche American steakhouse look begins to dilute itself across the whole of the UK, I imagine more tiny, rough & ready niche places like Flat Iron & Blacklock will emerge as hipper meat alternatives.
Hipness factor: Won’t let you down.
Burger & Lobster
Now that everyone’s realised that it’s 2015 and not 1975, lobsters are just over-farmed big prawns and not the glamorous and chic delicacy it once was perceived to be, plus the fact that everyone from All Bar One to Travelodge is now doing a Lobster/Burger special, B&L has gone from THE chicest and most fun little Mayfair concept to an ever-so-slightly bootcut jeans hangout for tourists and home counties day-trippers.
And don’t forget, it’s £20 for a burger. £20.
Shop count: Crikey is there really 8 now?
New kids on the block: None. Even if there was one, I doubt they’d do it as well as B&L.
Hipness factor: Lobster is the new salmon.
The brand that arguably started the London burger / ‘dirty food’ fad and made celebrating getting drunk for drunk’s sake when you’re not a student OK again, Meatliquor is one of the few that have kept a certain degree of hipness, and now with offshoots in Leeds, Brighton, and soon to be in Singapore, and Islington I think, they’re hanging on to it, but inevitably with a loosening grip. Much of their original fun & outrageousness has been quietly scrubbed off - what happened to ‘Arrive hungry, leave drunk’? - but constant inventiveness and realness has kept it sharp.
Shop count: 5/6
New Kids on the Block: unmatched for concept, apart from a few copycats up north. Burger bores will tell you Bleecker is better but Meatliquor is more of a way of life.
Hipness factor: Still got it.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Byron. They’ve unashamedly been chain-focused since day one, dedicated to high quality but basically simple product, and mushroomed faster than anyone I can think of. A masterstroke of marketing and design, Byron is a lesson in how to create a mid market family restaurant brand in the 21st century. The Pizza Express of burgers.
Shop count: 50
New Kids on the Block: Nobody really matching their formula at the moment.
Hipness factor: Byron never really was exactly ‘hip’, was it?
Neither baddass nor squeaky clean, I’m a little lost as to their identity really. A branch of Honest opening in your neighbourhood is as exciting and rock-n-roll and a branch of Evans Cycles. This is a burger chain for couples who read Homes & Property with interest and wear gilets. If they were a band they’d be Mumford & Sons.
Shop count: 8
New Kids on the block: Tommi’s, Patty & Bun, Dirty Burger** or my secret favourite: Dip & Flip are all cooler.
Hipness factor: Safecore
Investor David Page (also Meatliquor) clearly has an eye for a cool brand, and being ex Pizza Express he obviously knows pizza chains better than most. The only Pizza in the list, Franca Manca has grown from a single Brixton outlet which in 2009 was the 2nd hippest pizza in London after Santa Maria.
It's definitely true that London needed a new pizza chain, as since the 90s and with the more recent US comfort food craze, pizza simply hasn't been cool.
Shop count: 12
New kids on the block: Pizza Pilgrims, Pizza East**, Homeslice
Hipness Factor: Good choice for a quick lunch with an ex.
It’s hard to remember London restaurants before Polpo. Linen & half net curtains, exposed brick, filament bulbs, brown paper menus, mismatched chintz plates were all around, but nowhere put them all together in one beautifully designed little package with the magic of Russell Norman.
Polpo changed the way we all approached going out to eat, suddenly it was cool to sit at the grimy bar with little plates of picky food, drinking Negronis discussing Baroque art or nineteenth century Russian literature.
The problem is that since it opened nine restaurants in every ten have copied something of it, small plates and no bookings has become something to roll your eyes at and everyone’s realised that when the bill comes it’s never quite the no-frills casual bargain you were seduced into thinking it was.
Shop count: 5
New kids on the block: Everyone
Hipness factor: Very much still cool, even though they are now in Notting Hill (I know). Everyone tries, but nobody comes close to matching its style.
*OK I made that up
**These I don’t really count as they are all part of the Richard Caring masterplan and never really were cool indie startups in the first place