Last week, after a morning spent tasting teas at a new restaurant in St James (a long story), I unexpectedly found myself in the middle of central London with a spare hour to get some lunch. I quickly made a mental calculation of my cycling radius and how far I could justify travelling: obviously Mayfair and St James and anything west of Regent St were non-starters, and south of St James is just park, the Queen’s gaff, and river. I estimated I could go as far as Fitzrovia and still get to work on time, so I started cycling east and north, through Soho. After 20 minutes racking my brains over what to eat, I gave up and did the thing I almost always do in this situation: I went to Koya.
Soho has become a byword for restaurants in the same way Covent Garden is for theatres, Mayfair is for oligarchs and the City is for financial corruption. Eater London calls it “London’s restaurant epicentre” and Londonist calls it “London’s restaurant playground” - both of which carefully make no actual value judgment on the quality of those restaurants. The Infatuation calls it “London’s greatest neighbourhood”. More than this, it has become a byword for a certain kind of dining: casual, cheap, international, democratic. I recently, half facetiously, tweeted that there isn’t a single good restaurant in Mayfair, an easy, uncontroversial shot at a neighbourhood filled with restaurants most people can’t afford to eat at. But I would have to think twice about saying the same about Soho, an area which inspires a lot more affection. Yet I keep coming back to it again and again: why is there almost nowhere decent to eat in an area we are repeatedly told is full of the best and most affordable restaurants the city has to offer?
My own answer to this question is something I am calling the Sohofication of restaurants, or to give it its full title, the Soho-Fitzroviacation of restaurants. Sohofication is not a trend limited to Soho or even London. It’s a phenomenon seen in many city centres across the world, from New York’s East Village to the Marais. It is not only an indicator of quality (generally competent and nothing more) but also a kind of homogenisation, a reduction of world cuisines to the same set of rules, the same small plate structure, the same suppliers, the same prices, the same dining rooms the same concept of ‘elevation’. Sohofication gives you the world but it gives you it sanitised, an ‘It’s a Small World’ theme park of restaurants: one Indian, one Iranian, one Sri Lankan, one Peruvian, one Japanese, one Korean, one Thai, all of which are kind of the same restaurant.
Funnily enough, I actually believe that this pattern can be traced back to Koya itself. When John Devitt opened the original Koya in 2010 with Junya Yamasaki, it was a fairly honest recreation of a Japanese udon-ya with a template of soups and sides that could have been lifted wholesale from any smart, wood-panelled udon-ya anywhere in the Kansai region. It was Junya’s blackboard however, which got people (like me) excited: a regularly updated list of dishes which were certainly Japanese in structure but sometimes didn’t read Japanese, or dishes which seemed British but used Japanese techniques. It was perhaps a Sohofying of Japanese food, but it was done in a way that created something new; in its inauthenticity it was also the only Japanese restaurant in London that abided by the actual structure of Japanese cuisine which is to highlight the ephemerality of great, seasonal produce.
Since Koya, there has been a proliferation of restaurants within Soho which have tried to mimic this template with various degrees of success, with very few coming close. Hoppers, Kolamba and Paradise for Sri Lankan, Kricket and DUM Biryani for Indian, JinJuu for Korean, Cay Tre for Vietnamese, Ceviche for Peruvian, Inko Nito for Japanese, Nopi for Levantine, Copita for Spanish, Berenjak for Iranian, Yeni for Turkish, Blanchette for French, and about 200 fresh pasta restaurants for Italian. Even the two most successful restaurants, Kiln (Thai) and Bao (Taiwanese), loosely fit into this category, although both are more accomplished and cannier restaurants than the others I’ve named. This certainly gives Soho an image of diversity but it is a simulacrum of diversity. If you look at the way these restaurants talk about themselves, you will notice a verbal tick. Look:
specialising in small mazeh style sharing plates and charcoal grilled kababs, using seasonal British produce.
"side-of-the-road" restaurant, serving grill dishes using an open fire, inspired by Thai cuisine using seasonal, well sourced, British produce
robatayaki grills meats and seasonal veggies over an open flame at the heart of the restaurant
With an emphasis on seasonality and sustainability, the menu merges British and Sri Lankan ingredients prepared with a modern edge.
The team will apply their cooking techniques and style to the local, seasonal produce in the U.K. and merge them with some local ingredients imported from Turkey.
Our dishes and drinks are inspired by Lima and the coast of Peru, pairing Peruvian ingredients with local British produce.
Our kebabs are made from free-range British meat and top seasonal produce
Our focus since opening back in 2011 is to deliver plates of really tasty tapas from top notch ingredients. The menu is seasonal
The exciting menu offers Korean sharing platters and side dishes that encourage a convivial way of eating.
Now of course there is nothing unique about restaurants saying they use seasonal or local ingredients, but this gives you an idea of how each restaurant, no matter where the cuisine is from, is singing from the same hymnbook. Each one takes an existing cuisine and seeks to elevate it, not by cooking better or being genuinely creative, but by adding value through ‘seasonal’ ingredients, named, local produce and the impression of scarcity. Very few of these places are actually competitive with the restaurants frequented by the people who eat these cuisines day in day out, and to some extent rely on the public and the media remaining ignorant of this: Hoppers, for instance, is not as interesting a restaurant as Gana; none of Soho’s Vietnamese restaurants are better than what’s available in Greenwich and Deptford; one chef I know who had a good hummus experience at Berenjak later had a GREAT hummus experience at Balady in Temple Fortune.
The reasons for this homogenisation are very much part of the story of the homogenisation of our city centres, a homogenisation not of chains but of independent restaurants. In my second newsletter on decolonising restaurant criticism I mentioned that 20% of all national restaurant reviews are in the Mayfair/Chelsea areas, and 20% are in Soho/Fitzrovia, both areas that cover a few square miles of land. This grouping was deliberate: although not contiguous Mayfair and Chelsea represent the carving up of London between the estates of the Duke of Westminster and the Earl of Cadogan, and the restaurants are the way they are because the super-rich have appalling taste. The landlords of Soho and Fitzrovia are newer money, with Soho Estates (formerly Paul Raymond) owning much of Soho, Shaftesbury PLC owning nearly all of Chinatown and significant chunks of Soho, Fitzrovia and Covent Garden, while the offshore-owned Mount Eden is responsible for much of Fitzrovia. The assumed owner of Mount Eden, Samuel Tak Lee, was also the largest shareholder in Shaftesbury and had repeatedly tried to acquire a controlling stake, until this June when he sold to Capco which owns a huge amount of....Covent Garden! Expect more consolidation and the creation of a super landlord whose fiefdom stretches from Carnaby St all the way to Kingsway.
The consequence of so much real estate being in the hands of a few people means that a deliberate curation of space is possible. Much like a food court giving you the flavours of the world, the restaurants in Soho are carefully curated: not by Kerb or Market Halls, but by the landlords and developers themselves. In Chinatown you can see what this looks like when it is inorganically fast tracked, and while the process in Soho and to a lesser extent in Fitzrovia has been slower (much of the west side of Fitzrovia was stopped from being restaurant heavy up until a few years ago because the showrooms were protected) it has been no less profound. Soho, and that appalling estate agent neologism Noho, have indeed become restaurant playgrounds
While writing this I did a few surveys of close friends, people who follow me on Instagram, chefs and writers, about what they actually thought about Soho. The vast majority could only name 1-3 restaurants in Soho they would eat at regularly, with seven in particular: Koya Bar, Kiln, Bao, Duck Soup and Barrafina from the new world, and Quo Vadis and Andrew Edmunds from the old world, standing out as repeated names. The lowest number given (0) was by the manager of a famous London restaurant, the highest (12) co-owns two restaurants in Soho. But even if we accept the upper limits of that, there must be around 200-300 places to eat within Soho, making this a very small return. Although you can say that perhaps the restaurants in Soho are for a different audience than people interested in food - an audience of people who are mainly there to eat somewhere central after work - so much of food media is bound up in trying to convince us that there are many more great restaurants in this square mile than there actually are.
One prominent chef told me:
“One thing that makes it all so hard are the premiums. In Soho you can expect to pay £500,000 just to secure the site, even before you do any work and way before you have cash flow. It’s all terrifying - the amount of money you have to claw back is so scary. It will be years before you actually start making money”
And in some labyrinthine way I’m back to my original point. When you open a casual dining restaurant for the privilege of it being in Soho, you are immediately on the back foot, trying to regain money through any means necessary. None of this is conducive to great cooking, let alone sustainable cooking or cooking that isn’t wasteful. Yet the Sohofication of restaurants has been creeping further away from the square mile, into Fitzrovia and Covent Garden of course, but even to Peckham or Brixton where new arrivals, that feel like they have been forged on Frith St and dropped in the middle of south London, are cooed over as exciting dining options. And they are all profoundly, profoundly mediocre.
As central London starts to open up, we should not be thinking about trying to preserve the core of our city as it was but about who these restaurants actually benefit, about how sustainable a self-perpetuating machine of restaurant saturation and rising rents and rates really is. Look at that list of restaurants again and then work out how many have opened second or third sites to keep afloat, or how many are themselves the second or third sites (spoiler: it’s almost all of them). It’s an open secret among most chefs, restaurant owners and writers: there are too many restaurants in central London and some need to close ─ this will be both an opportunity for landlords to question whether to take on different types of businesses, and hopefully for restaurants themselves to negotiate their leases to be more in-line with their revenue, with the threat of walking away.
The pandemic may mean a halt or a reversal to the Sohofication of restaurants but it may also reverse the ongoing restaurantification of Soho. This is a good thing. I don’t say this out of any misguided nostalgia for Soho-as-was, the kind of Soho perpetuated by bores who talk about that time they saw Francis Bacon propping up the bar at the French House or Sebastian Horsley walking down Meard St. But it is simply not healthy for so much of a city to be defined by literal and metaphorical consumption. It is time to think about whether one area should be a ‘restaurant epicentre’ and if the cooking that actually makes us happy, the cooking that many chefs really want to do, isn’t better served elsewhere.