An email dropped into my inbox recently informing me that we were about to enter London Restaurant Fortnight, and promoting all sorts of inducements and cut-price offers to sample the very best that the capital’s restaurants have to offer. On paper I suppose I am the market for such offers-middle-aged, professional, of a broadly metropolitan hue — but the truth is they have as much appeal to me as those Exciting Opportunities to win World Cup tickets or front row Wimbledon seats, i.e. none. For I am simply not interested enough in food, and these days that puts you right outside one of the cultural mainstreams of London life.
Part of this is a personal idiosyncrasy: a particularly nasty bout of childhood chicken pox left me with no sense of smell, certainly a handicap in cuisine appreciation. I would never make a wine connoisseur. But it’s more than just this. I have an aversion to the way in which restaurants define what passes for the Good Life in the capital, with eating out now the chief cultural activity, and the extraordinary way in which food generally has become the big indicator — of class, good political character and one’s overall worthwhileness as a human being.
These days you are what you eat — just not in any medical sense. You might go down to Borough Market at London Bridge and “source” your weekly shopping from the organic extravaganza, while feeling as smugly righteous and above the fray as any cyclist whizzing through stationary traffic. Your coffee-chain latte is tailored to your particular needs because, on life’s menu, you are one of today’s specials. Your oh-so-tired disdain for McDonald’s is most likely a cover for your disdain for the people who eat there. Your stated interest in eating out is now a routine way of showing a potential love/sex interest that you are an adventurous spirit who values “learning about different cultures”. And you might turn your nose up at puddings, pies and Scotch eggs as being hopelessly provincial — unless of course you work in the media and are enjoying them ironically.
Whatever you do, you’re saying something about who and what you are. And of course, it is the culinary, rather than the personal, that is now political. I have had whole conversations where the pros and cons of multiculturalism and mass immigration are discussed purely, and seriously, in terms of the different foods now on offer in London. Less well-endowed towns are seen as seriously defective, in some way left behind.
One estimate has put the number of restaurants in London at around 6,000, but this seems very conservative to me. In truth nobody really knows, especially given the high turnover rate. That eating out in this city is immeasurably better than it used to be is not in question, nor is the fact that its variety is now unsurpassed anywhere: the best restaurants in Paris and Rome are still resolutely French and Italian. Unlike them we’re certainly not marinated in our own way of doing things. But food and the places where it’s served have now become fetishised in London. I have been rereading American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s attack on the vacuous obsession with all things superficial in yuppie Manhattan, in which (alongside the wholesale pornographic carnage and detailing of designer outfits) entire pages are given over to menus, ever more gimmicky culinary creations and the desperate need simply to be part of it all. That novel is more than 20 years old but in the intervening years the mania has skipped across the Atlantic.
Oddly enough it is not painting, dancing or actually creating something new which most people mean when they talk breathlessly of the dynamism and “vibrancy” of London, but the act of sitting down and eating at a table. One walk through Soho will show you that London’s energy is really far more about the noise of packed, hugely overpriced restaurants than it is about forging new ways of thinking or creating. The hubbub of the restaurant scene gives rise to a sense that something is actually happening, and that one is in the middle of it. Perhaps, like fashion, food has rushed into the void where meaningful creativity used to be. It is also something we can all have an opinion on, our taste not subject to the need for expertise and knowledge. It is a shortcut to sophistication. What is lost in all of this, to give in to nostalgia for a moment, is a sense of occasion.
So much part of everyday life has eating out become that not to be able to do it at least once a week is seriously taken as a sign of shockingly straitened circumstances, probably even outright poverty in some people’s eyes. What it also shows is that the more transitory a place becomes, the more atomised, the more filled with single people who need to pass the evenings socialising, the more restaurants you need. Being a single man, I know this only too well. Although in my case, I found a place I liked, in a little street in Covent Garden, and have stuck to it for 30 years. I have no idea where it rates on the gastrometer, and I couldn’t care less.